Conservatism's virgin soldier

Interview: ANN WIDDECOMBE

I have bought Ann Widdecombe a big bunch of flowers. Tulips, they are. Pale pink and dark pink ones with some sprigs of Sweet William thrown in. The florist and I declare them divine. As does Miss Widdecombe, initially.

"How gorgeous," she whoops with some rapture while making a big thing of burying her nose in them and snorting: "Ahhh, lovely." Well, I say, you've had a pretty tough week. ("Yes, yes, it's been absolute hell.") And, hey, it's not as if you ever got any from Derek Lewis, is it?

Thankfully, she laughs, then says "how kind" before tossing them dismissively on to a work surface where I know they will be left to wither and die. There is no sign of a vase about the place. She never glances at them again. Ultimately, I don't think Miss Widdecombe cares much for flowery things. Indeed, had Mr Lewis ever seriously wished to woo her he would have been better off buying her a book about, say, Religion and Society in Kent, 1610 to 1914. Although, when I later inspect her bookcase, I see immediately that she has it already. (It's between Struggle Safely to Heaven and that other lively read, Where Is God In All This?)

Now, what are we to make of Miss Widdecombe after recent events? Should we admire her? Personally, I am beginning to think we should, but when I tell her this she comes over all bossy. I mustn't, she says, confuse admiration with delight at seeing the Tories in yet more trouble. She knows, she adds, that "I'm bringing more pleasure to the opposition than I am to my own party. I can see that." Then, perhaps warningly: "I do have a brain."

Yes, Miss Widdecombe, I'm sure you do. I'm sure you never made it to ministerial rank on coquettishness alone. But, still, it takes guts to take on Michael Howard. It would have been a lot easier to have kept quiet, wouldn't it? "Yes, much easier," she accepts, but her conscience was such that she couldn't. "Derek Lewis told me not to do it. Friends told me not to do it. It took me a long time to summon my courage. But once I'd decided it was the right thing to do, I held to my resolution and have done it."

Yes, she's wrecked Howard's leadership chances. She might even have wrecked his political career, full stop. We might draw pleasure from this but she, she insists, does not. "I actually feel very, very sorry for Michael. Really, I do. I vividly remember the night before the general election when he rang me up to wish me good luck and left a message on my answer machine. He had a definite catch in his voice and I knew from that he was expecting to lose his seat. I prayed very, very hard for him despite all that had passed between us." Howard did retain his seat. Although whether this proves there is a God or not is, of course, up for debate.

We meet at her office round the corner from the House. There is an anti- abortion, foetus-cupped-in-hand poster on one wall and a jokey Garfield job on the other. ("If you want to look thinner, hang out with people fatter than you.") She is wearing something large and Berkertex and patterned. She is not much interested in fashion or "making the most of yourself", as my mother would say, although at one point she does boast about having worn hot-pants when they first came out. "In fact, I was among the first to wear hot-pants." Her hairdo is its usual spooky witch's cowl. A crucifix hangs round her neck. But, overall, the impression is less Hammer House of Horror than, say, the rather eccentric, battily religious headmistress of some girls' school. Does she find the Doris Karloff business hurtful? "I'm inured to it," she says.

Moments before our meeting, she had bumped into the Chief Whip in the street. It is the first time she's seen him since all this hoo-ha broke out. And? "I said: `There is nothing personal in it, you know?' To which he replied, "I'm getting wet. It's raining." Last night, Miss Widdecombe took the feud with Howard to new heights when she delivered to his house advance warning of the accusations she plans to make in the Commons today during a home affairs debate. This is something to look forward to.

Miss Widdecombe is a considerable woman. Considerable in size - monumentally- bosomed, in fact - and considerable in that she has beliefs which she believes in absolutely. Miss Widdecombe, I ask at one point, are there any grey areas with you? "Well," she replies after some thought, "I wasn't too sure about Sunday trading. But I can't immediately think of anything else, no."

If Miss Widdecombe is scary, she is most scary when it comes to her views.

Aside from being anti-abortion, pro-hanging, anti-divorce and all the things we already know she is, I discover quite a few of her other betes noires.

Feminism is one. "What a whinge!" she cries. "And positive discrimination! I would find it humiliating." Working mothers are another. "So sad. If you have children, the children must come first." And then there is sex before marriage, which she is all for. No, only joking. She is rather against it, as you can imagine.

It undermines the family unit, she says. Yes, she appreciates sex isn't just about procreation ("Otherwise, why would women past the menopause still want to do it?") but, still, it is only for marriage. "It is the physical side of a life-long commitment," she says. Sex before marriage, she continues, is only acceptable if you do it with a fiance. "At least, then, you are going to marry him."

Miss Widdecombe has never had sex. Yes, she's still a virgin at 50. She's only ever had one romance. It was with a fellow undergraduate at Oxford. But they never became engaged and so never slept together. I wonder, naturally, if she will ever look back and regret not giving sex a try, if only out of curiosity, if only to see what all the fuss is about. "Goodness gracious, no," she exclaims. "Why does everyone think you can't manage without sex or telly. I do very nicely without both." No telly? "Too much filth," she barks.

No sex? No telly? What does she do when she gets back to her little flat in Kennington, south London, of an evening? Cook? No, she is, she says, very much a beans-on-toast, take-away fish and chips sort of person. Read? Yes, she likes detective novels, particularly Ruth Rendell.

Cinema? She's befriended the two children of the family who own her local chippy and, come a recess, they usually drag her off to see something or other. Most recently, she saw 101 Dalmatians. "We giggled hysterically, it was so funny." Friends? Yes, many, she claims, although, funnily enough, they are mostly male. "I do prefer the company of men. They don't try to psychologically analyse you like women do. I find their company much more relaxing. But I do have some women friends. Gillian Shephard is one."

Although, when all's said and done, Miss Widdecombe would appear to lead quite an unpopulated life, I think it would be a mistake to view her as troubled or lonely or sad. Miss Widdecombe has her beliefs for company. If anything else came into her life, it would just get in the way.

Her father, Murray, was a senior defence official, while her mother, Rita, was a stay-at-home mum as all mums, in her opinion, should be.

"I accept, of course, some women have to go out to work. It's the ones who choose to do it I'm against." We have quite a nice spat about this. What, I interrupt, about women who don't want to be economically dependent on men? What about women who need intellectual stimulation. At this last, she quite loses her rag. "Need intellectual stimulation? Need it? Who is to say staying home with children can't be intellectually stimulating." Miss Widdecombe does not have children of her own. I do not think Miss Widdecombe has ever had to do the same five-piece Spot puzzle 478 times in the course of the same weekend. Miss Widdecombe, as you have probably gathered, is quite magnificent when it comes to talking about things she knows nothing about.

She is, she says, much more like her father, a tough career civil servant, than her mother, who is "soft and kind and gentle". And Ann is never any of these things? "Actually, I like to think I am kind and gentle and, sometimes, I am much softer than I would wish. I do feel for people. I feel for Michael, although he wouldn't understand that. I hate seeing people suffer. Loathe it. Hate it. I don't walk past beggars. I like furry, purry things." Her cat, Sweep, died recently at 24. Yes, she did have a little cry over that.

The early part of her childhood was spent abroad until her family returned to this country when she was nine and despatched her to a convent boarding school. No, boarding schools are not worse than working mothers.

She was with her mother "whenever I came home for the holidays". At first, though, she wasn't happy at the school. A girl in her dorm bullied her. She appealed to her parents to take her away. They refused. "They encouraged me to stick it out and get through it. Eventually, that girl and I became good friends." I think here Miss Widdecombe learned that suffering is part of the human condition and must be endured. If she does give to beggars, I doubt she gives very much. Later, when we talk about surrogacy, which naturally horrifies her, she says: "It's all part of the modern malaise that you mustn't live with anything that is causing you unhappiness, isn't it?"

Her family, actually, is Anglican (her elder brother Malcolm is a Church of England canon). But she ended up at a convent school because, quite simply, it was the best school in the Bath area. She got a lot of stick, she says, for not being Catholic but she didn't care.

"Every time they gave me a rosary I lost it down the back of the piano in the recreation room. I stood up solidly for who I was and what I believed in." Now, though, she is a Catholic, having famously converted a couple of years ago. But she insists this had nothing to do with what happened at school. She was, she says, ultimately attracted to Rome because "alone of all the churches it stood firm with regard to popular opinion". Rather like she does? "Ah, yes, I can see a connection there."

She studied Latin at Birmingham University then politics at Oxford. She had, she says, decided to become a politician when she was 14. She found Churchill inspiring. Plus, I reckon, she saw politics as an excellent way of taking her beliefs and pressing them upon others. She worked in marketing and then as a financial administrator for London University until she won Maidstone in 1987 and became John Major's first woman minister.

Yes, she says, she should have resigned in October 1995, when Lewis was sacked as director- general of the prison service. She remembers how Howard, at the time, referred to Lewis's "bitter spleen" and how disgusted she felt. "It was the triumphalist, gloating tone in his voice I couldn't take." But she didn't resign then, she says, because although she had the impression Lewis had been unfairly dealt with, she didn't have the proof. "And Michael is just so forensically clever." Also, "My resignation wouldn't have achieved anything then. I wasn't going to get Derek reinstated. All I would have achieved was a complete wrecking of what looked like a recovery in the party's fortunes, even though it proved illusory like all our other recoveries." She is speaking up now, she says, because Michael is not fit to be leader.

I do not think Miss Widdecombe is a political opportunist. I do not think she has ever put self-advancement before integrity. She is standing up for who she is and what she believes in as solidly as ever. For this, she deserves a certain respect, even though it means overlooking her views, her refusal to be included in any kind of sisterhood and, now I think about it, the fact she only ever sees children's films.

Yes, I do think I admire her in a strange kind of way. Although, that said, I don't think I'll be inviting her to my next Ann Summers party.

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