Things do not bode well at Ann Widdecombe's book-signing session. In the corner of Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, London, a stand baring the words: "Very Important Publications" does not contain a single copy of the shadow Home Secretary's debut novel, The Clematis Tree.
Despite the board outside advertising the event, five minutes before Miss Widdecombe is due to arrive, journalists outnumber fans by three to zero. The store's marketing assistant, Mark Hammett, who insists the occasion is an "informal" signing, remembers the day in 1993 when Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher came to the store to promote The Downing Street Years.
"The queue went up to the third floor, out the front, and all the way up to Piccadilly," he says, his eyes almost misting over. "The cafÃ© next door went out with a tea trolley and made a small mint." And then, of course, there was the visit by Bette Davis, which saw fans fighting for souvenir fag ends.
An instantly recognisable hair-do - a black page-boy with a skunk-like white stripe down the middle parting - can be seen bobbing past piles of books. Miss Widdecombe, resplendent in a navy top, lime green skirt, double string of pearls and House of Commons gold brooch, takes her place at the signing desk. "Jolly good, hello," she says to the three of us.
A few minutes pass and suddenly there is a shrill cry to a distant customer. "If you are going to buy it, let me sign it," she hails. Brian Wright, 32, a venture capitalist, shuffles towards his heroine with a copy of the novel, the story of a couple who struggle to cope with a son left comatose by a car accident.
I point out to Mr Wright that it contains not the slightest reference to stirrings in the trouser region or pert breasts, unlike the bonkbusters of her fellow Tories Edwina Currie and Amanda Platell. Mr Wright, a self-confessed "huge fan" of the politician, is not bothered. So what is the attraction? "Personality, clarity of thought and the next prime minister," he says, without hesitation.
He moves off and a loud silence descends again around the desk, as customers politely step past it. Miss Widdecombe and I are left to talk among ourselves. "Sales have so far gone very well. I did 150 in Harrogate, 55 in Maidstone, 65 in Tewkesbury and advances sales are well over half their print run and we've started reorders," she insists.
The novel is the start of many - Miss Widdecombe is already one-quarter of the way through her next offering. Set in Second World War France, it is the tale of a young convent schoolgirl who falls in love with a senior married German officer. Any sex in that one? "I don't think you will find any explicit sex in any of my books," she warns. Indeed, the one reference to carnal pleasures in The Clematis Tree is the tugging off of a jersey.
What does she think of Edwina Currie's books? Miss Widdecombe gives a splendidly withering look that lasts several seconds. "Least said soonest mended," she sniffs, signing another book for an invisible customer. And Amanda Platell? "Amanda tells me not to read Scandal, she says I'll be scandalised, so I'm not going to read it. She very gallantly has bought mine."
Has Michael Howard read it? "I haven't a notion," she says, her cheery smile suddenly vanished. The session is over and Miss Widdecombe exits, leaving not the slightest pickings for the souvenir-hunter, save the chill still hanging in the air from the mention of the former home secretary.Reuse content