Miss Widdecombe, 'third-age fatty', takes to the floor

Former minister waltzes her way into the audience's affections on her 'Strictly' debut

Ann Widdecombe took to the Strictly Come Dancing floor last night amid a sea of sequins and dazzling veneers to "fly the flag for third-age fatties".

The strident former Conservative minister was one of the more unlikely contestants lined up to give ballroom a bash on live television, but did it, she said, for all those "pigeonholed" for being overweight, unfit or prudish. And she's tipped to be the main draw in the eighth series of the BBC celebrity dance show, which on Friday saw 9.3 million viewers tuning in for the first live performance, starring half of the 14 contestants.

"I suppose I am flying the flag for third-age, modest fatties," she said. "I'm 63 on Monday, so it'll be a very happy birthday for me, especially if the performance has gone well."

Sparkling on stage in a fuchsia dress and shimmering silver jacket, in the arms of Anton Du Beke, is some considerable distance from her former role as minister of state for prisons, a role that led her to describe her boss Michael Howard as having "something of the night about him".

But, as she admits, she's "up for anything" – as long as it's not risqué. "I refuse to do anything immodest," said the devout Roman Catholic, who has appeared in an episode of Doctor Who and ITV's Celebrity Fit Club. "I will not wear anything revealing. I am staying away from the fake tan."

She may not be in great shape, but said she'd been "surprised" by how well she had adapted to the intensive training – up to five hours a day in a studio in Newton Abbot, Devon, close to her home in Dartmoor. "It's not been that bad at all. It was always going to be difficult; but that's why Anton is so fantastic. He's let me go at my own pace. The training sounds horrendous, but I accepted right from the start that I was going to have the lowest technical performance and that's why I could forget about it and have fun. After all, it's not a world war. Nobody's going to die, nobody's getting hurt. I've spent 23 years getting negative reactions – I'm not afraid of negative reactions. This isn't politics."

Nor was she worried about her partner's slightly tarnished reputation. The professional ballroom dancer sparked controversy last year when he was revealed to have described the actress Laila Rouass as a "Paki" during rehearsals after she'd used a spray tan. He later admitted it was "offensive" and issued an unconditional apology.

"That was last year," Ms Widdecombe said. "This is this year's competition. They're completely different. I said no every year for six years when they asked me to appear on it," she added. "But then I retired, and I saw John Sergeant doing it and I thought, 'why not?' If you fall over on the dance floor, then who cares? I feel extremely sprightly. If I didn't, there's no way I'd be doing anything like this."

Place your bets: Matt and Kara step out as bookies' favourites

Here are the odds from William Hill for this year's winners of 'Strictly'...

Countryfile's Matt Baker & Aliona Vilani – 9/4

EastEnders' Kara Tointon & Artem Chigvintsev – 9/2

Actor Jimi Mistry & Flavia Cacace – 6/1 Destiny's Child singer Michelle Williams & Brendan Cole – 7/1

EastEnders actor Scott Maslen & Natalie Lowe – 7/1

Corrie's Tina O'Brien & Jared Murillo – 10/1

Felicity Kendal & Vincent Simone – 12/1

Gavin Henson & Katya Virshilas – 20/1

Pamela Stephenson & James Jordan – 20/1

Patsy Kensit & Robin Windsor – 33/1 Ann Widdecombe & Anton Du Beke – 50/1

Goldie & Kristina Rihanoff – 50/1 Former goalie Peter Shilton & Erin Boag – 66/1

Paul Daniels & Ola Jordan – 66/1