'Minister for trouble' scores own goal

Widdecombe's gaffe: Home Office right-winger's reputation for safe pair of hands is dealt blow by prison row
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Chief Political Correspondent

Ann Widdecombe, the doughty prisons minister, was until yesterday regarded as one of the few ministers in the Major government with a safe pair of hands. Ms Widdecombe, 48, has been so frequently on the television defending the Home Office recently, one minister's wife described her as "the minister for trouble".

The daughter of a high- ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, she was educated at the Royal Naval School in Singapore and a strict convent school at Bath, before studying Latin at Oxford.

She made her mark as secretary of the Oxford Union in 1971. After Oxford she went into marketing with Unilever, and was the financial administrator of London University until winning her Maidstone seat in 1987.

Establishing herself as a right-winger, she co-founded Women and Families for Defence with Lady Olga Maitland to campaign against Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament - supporting Labour MPs in the battle over Cruise missiles.

In the Commons, she attracted criticism from women for supporting David Alton's Bill to lower the ceiling on abortion to 18 weeks - her speeches on the abortion issue underlined her combative and competent style.

Despite being a supporter of hanging, anti-abortion and fiercely pro- nuclear weapons, she failed to win promotion under Margaret Thatcher, gaining her first post as a parliamentary aide to Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Foreign Office minister.

A strong supporter of John Major, she was given her first ministerial post by him at the Department of Social Security, but saw more charismatic women promoted above her, including Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shephard.

Being only 5ft 1in has perhaps made it more difficult for Ms Widdecombe to make an impact. It probably contributed last week to the unprecedented barrage of abuse she faced for defending the Home Office over shackling women prisoners. Single, with no children, she has been accused by Labour of having no knowledge of childbirth.

She has been described as "hard as nails", with a strong hint of being anti-women. Her decision to become a Catholic in protest at the ordination of women was regarded as further evidence of her coldness towards women in general, a charge which she strongly denies. Her simple, straightforward approach to religion, as well as politics and most other things, was exemplified by her comment on her conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. She said then: "To have a church which calls a sin a sin and has done with it, is a blessed relief."

Yesterday, after she had apologised to the Commons, one minister said: "It's appropriate that she said mea culpa."

During the Christmas recess, as Minister of State for the Home Office, she defended the Government on difficult issues, including CS gas spray for the police and the expulsion of the Saudi rebel Mohammed al Masari.

The announcement that Ms Widdecombe was to make a "personal statement" raised speculation to fever pitch at Westminster that she was about to resign. But quitting would have been out of character, and it would have been a serious blow to the Major government. Few could have blamed her. The personal abuse heaped on her looks was rare even for the present government.

By making a personal statement, admitting a mistake had been made by officials, Ms Widdecombe also avoided being cross-examined on the policy of the Home Office in prisons. As the senior minister below the Home Secretary, she cannot afford to show any doubt about the policy adopted by Michael Howard.

She gave no hint of the doubts that she privately feels about prison policy, in particular, the sacking of Derek Lewis as chief executive of the Prison Service. But her sympathy for Mr Lewis is one of factor which makes her difficult to categorise as a knee-jerk Thatcherite right-winger.