CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE: The Sketch: Ann, Matron of Britain, wins longest ovation of the day

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The Independent Online
IN THE semi-darkness, in a spaceship destined for oblivion, the Tory party conference is taking place. On one side of the set sit four anonymous party functionaries. On the other side is an infant school playpen with six multi-coloured Ikea self-assembly chairs. Scattered around are giant children's building bricks, which double as coffee tables. Important grown-up children and pensioned-off former prime ministers take it in turns to sit in the playpen while listening to endless calls for party unity.

In between the two groups are three lecterns standing in front of a huge backdrop of multicoloured shapes, forming a giant arrow, pointing towards the sign marked "exit". The Tory torch symbol has been abandoned and they have given up on the Union Jack.

Into this arena stepped Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative health spokesman, who stole the show from William Hague.

Miss Widdecombe momentarily unified the Tories and brought delegates alive with a knockabout performance. She reminded them that the job of opposition is to oppose Labour, not the Tories. While others, like cannibals, were tearing large chunks out of each other inside the conference and on the fringe, she sunk her teeth into Labour's health policy with relish, ferocity and vengeance. Unable to cope with the dark set she strode, purposefully, to the front of the stage with no notes and no handbag. She may look frumpy but she cut an impressive figure in a remarkably (for her) well-tailored blue suit. She had made small concessions to the occasion with an almost attractive new hairstyle, earrings and lipstick.

She harangued the audience in a masterful performance. While the rest of the Tory party fumbled around apologising and pretending to listen (except to those it didn't agree with) she defended the last government's health record and tried to convince the country that it had something, then, of which to be proud.

Miss Widdecombe knows how to use her fearsome personality to advantage and enjoyed making fun of Labour's junior health minister, Tessa Jowell, whom she called "chief nanny". Apparently, Ms Jowell's photo appears 32 times in an 18-page booklet on public health. "Now I could understand it if she had my good looks," thundered Miss Widdecombe.

She railed against the nanny state and its obsession with banning tobacco advertising. In a reference to the Bernie Ecclestone/ Formula One affair she said "the nanny state has decreed that tobacco is so dangerous it can only be advertised on vehicles travelling at over 150mph".

To wild applause Miss Widdecombe demanded the return of hospital matrons and set herself up as the matron of Britain. Her speaking style, fierce arm movements for emphasis and powerful voice won the loudest and longest ovation of the day, eclipsing William Hague's speech earlier.

Mr Hague was reduced to giving a warm-up speech for Miss Widdecombe as he alternately called on the Tory party to unify, while continuing to provoke his former cabinet colleagues, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke.

In the first of two conference appearances he shouted out his flat Yorkshire monotone vowels. He said, on 19 occasions: "It is time for the party to move on." Where we were moving on to was not always clear, but it was to be done with "vigour", "confidence" and "together". But it was also "time to move on from the division and arguments of the past over Europe". Having called for party unity he then promptly challenged, implicitly, Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine, to "move on with us ... but if you choose not to move on you will be left behind."

He then harangued them about not allowing him to be held back. It looked like code for telling them he did not care if they left the party, almost daring them to take their bats home.

They won't.