Leading article: Miss Widdecombe is a charming extremist

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FOR A woman who claims to abjure the black arts of image-making, the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe has engineered for herself a remarkably good press recently. Panegyric after panegyric fill the newspapers and Miss Widdecombe is routinely talked about as a successor to Mr Hague. And with some good reason. During her period "on duty", as she likes to put it, while her chief is on holiday, she has launched a series of attacks on New Labour which have certainly caused the Government more than usual discomfort. Miss Widdecombe is often likened to Margaret Thatcher, but her style is more reminiscent of Norman Tebbitt: below the belt, rough and semi-house trained.

Of course, we should be grateful for this. It is good to see any Opposition politician being so effective in challenging the Government. She obviously enjoys it, and is something of a natural for television, as her interview with Sarah Montague on the BBC the other morning demonstrated. She is a conviction politician. The only trouble with Miss Widdecombe is that her convictions - sincerely held and robustly fought for - are less than appealing.

Miss Widdecombe, we should not forget, was the minister who presided over the shackling of pregnant female prisoners; who has declared, rather disturbingly, that the NHS alone is incapable of meeting patients' needs; has opposed lowering the age of consent for gay people; has described the BBC's output as "filth"; and is enthusiastic about capital punishment. She also thinks that Jack Straw is right and that Britain is a soft touch for asylum seekers, even as we issue them with below-subsistence-level food vouchers. Miss Widdecombe may be a safe pair of hands to look after her party; but the voters are likely to remain far from convinced that this effective, even charming extremist is safe to run the country.