So just what is this wonderful new world of Widdecombism?

If economics drove Mrs Thatcher, moralism seems to be what finds the Widdecombe G-spot.
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I SEE that the words "icon" and "Widdecombe" are increasingly being used together. And Miss Ann Widdecombe certainly passes the Aaronovitch iconic test, which is that she is as recognisable seen from behind as she is from the front.

Marilyn Monroe, Mrs Thatcher and Elvis Presley were also icons; William Hague and Camilla Parker-Bowles, say, are merely famous.

And what is so remarkable about Ann? Well, one fact is that she - like a lot of us - looks like the back end of a bus. In an era of crushing physical stereotyping, where youth, slimness and symmetry are what we are all told to desire and to try and purchase, it's pretty affirming to have Ann doing so well. We are fond of her. This kindly feeling reminds me of happily walking the beaches in Florida, surrounded by people mostly older and much fatter than me. I loved them all. In fact, the fatter they were, the more I liked them.

So, she doesn't arouse competitive vanity in others, which we translate as meaning that she isn't herself vain. Most of us too feel ourselves to be both prisoners of, and rebels against, the world of image making and public relations. So the Widdecombe refusal to know what the Phantom Menace is, to enjoy EastEnders, or spend her summer holidays abseiling with Geordie judo-instructors, looks like a great two fingers to the forces of darkness. She is, in that sense, the Tory Clare Short.

This, we then imagine (or at least we do south of Berwick and east of Abergavenny) is very English. The Anglo-Saxon virtues are straightforwardness, doggedness, common sense and an aversion to diet and exercise.

True, in Ann this does sometimes shade over into a slightly willful eccentricity. In an interview with an admiring journalist this week she spoke of her schooldays at a Catholic convent school in Bath (where her parents sent her despite being Anglicans themselves). "There was no sex education," she said of La Sainte Union, "The school had no attitude to sex, and neither did we."

Things have obviously changed in Catholic girls' schools, because I remember convent girls having a very highly developed attitude towards sex. Indeed, they understood with a sickening precision, the exact point at which a dalliance became a mortal sin. Is it possible that the adolescent Ann Widdecombe misread the hearts of her fellow pupils?

This is not such a silly question. A lot of perfectly sensible (if slightly excitable) journalists and MPs are beginning to ask whether Miss W could be either the next leader of the Conservative Party or - failing that - William Hague's Keith Joseph. Some of them are even coming round to the view that she enjoys a communion with the voters that other more political politicians do not share.

Since there may never be such a thing as Hagueism (unless the appellation is given to a disease in which the victim suffers precocious aging), what about Widdecombism? Is there something half-way coherent there that might offer an alternative to the ubiquitous Third Way?

After 1997 a lot of us thought that the best way ahead for the Tories was to become the party of unashamed personal freedom. New Labour was bound to be nannyish and didactic, so there would be room for a political orientation that was both economically and socially liberal - a party of low taxes, small state and take-drugs-if you-really-want-to. Such a party, we reasoned, would appeal to the young and to the aspirant.

But Ann Widdecombe is not socially liberal, so she wouldn't fit that bill. Yet didn't a mix of free market economics and social authoritarianism work very well for Mrs Thatcher? She wasn't exactly Roy Jenkins, with all that talk of "swamping" and the "enemy within", was she?

Here's my argument. What really drove Thatcher was economic radicalism. She had bought the monetarist store, and was determined - above all things - to restructure the British economy. Insofar as authoritarianism might have impeded her economic reforms, I do not believe she was at all interested. Had she invested it with her authority she could probably have ensured the restoration of capital punishment. She didn't.

She never took up the issue of abortion, seemed unconcerned about sex on the telly, and liked the Jews more than she liked the church. She was not - in other words - a moralist.

Ann is. If economics drove Mrs T, moralism seems to be what finds the Widdecombe G-spot. And her response to the summer's events in Dover and elsewhere have suggested a kind of Pat Buchanan politics. At the weekend she characterised the people of Dover as saying about asylum seekers: "`We're very happy to help, but it isn't fair to expect us to take the entire burden'. That's a perfectly reasonable attitude, that is not racial intolerance."

But she must know that such sentiments have been accompanied by virulent xenophobia. It just seems not to shock her. Indeed she encourages it by proclaiming that Britain is now seen as a "soft touch" for illegal immigrants. Actually, of course, it's seen as a place where the economy is relatively dynamic, and hard workers can better themselves. That's why the US finds itself absorbing tens of thousands of illegal immigrants every year.

Widdecombe's moralism extends to issues like the PM's holiday: she professes herself genuinely shocked that Mr Blair should "scrounge" villas etcetera, from various Tuscans. Such asceticism is rare, and seems to proceed as much from a dislike of sybaritism as from a concern about favours possibly being done. Mr Blair, she has declared - as one practising Christian to another - is a canting hypocrite.

And now we are getting close to it. Miss Widdecombe is religious in an old way. She sees Mr Blair supposedly suspended between Anglicanism and the Catholicism to which she has converted, yet he seems to approve of birth control, sex before marriage, the ordination of women, and to tolerate abortion - all without appearing to be a soul in torment. He is, therefore, inherently untrustworthy - a constant semi-apostate.

This also tells you why Widdecombism is a political blind alley. Ann Widdecombe is, if you like, a sort of democratic Francoist, a reactionary authoritarian, whose slogan might well be patria, familia, iglesia. She is incorruptible, frugal and morally certain. Like many anti-abortionists, for instance, she believes that abortion is not a matter to be left to the individual's conscience - any more than murder should be. It is equally hard to imagine that a Widdecombe-led Tory party would let the issue alone.

It is hard to imagine anything being more of a turn-off for young voters, than a party leader explaining why women are not fit to be priests - or why they should go to Holland for their terminations. They'd almost certainly decide that some icons should be left in the convents or the churches - where they belong.