Pedigree Tory: Hattie Jacques crossed with Uncle Fester

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The Independent Online
"SHE'S NOT really like other MPs, is she?" With remarkable understatement, Lynsey Scott, 17, clutched Ann Widdecombe's autograph with all the starry- eyed relish of a pop groupie.

One of a group of youngsters who mobbed the shadow Home Secretary in front of Parliament, Lynsey was clearly thrilled. So, it's official: Ann Widdecombe does not eat babies or small children.

The MP dubbed Doris Karloff by the tabloids does, however, eat Labour press releases for breakfast, an activity she has been indulging for the past week at the helm of Conservative Central Office.

While William Hague suns himself in the States, the Tories' favourite schoolmarm is basking in her new role as caretaker Tory leader.

Miss Widdecombe (take that down, class, that's Miss not Ms) was pounced on by the teenagers as she launched the party's new policy to give victims of crime greater rights.

Having survived a determined character assassination attempt by Labour the previous day, nobody could accuse the MP for Maidstone and the Weald of being a victim.

Labour's new campaigns chief, the Cabinet Office minister, Ian McCartney, issued an "X-file" on her, claiming she was the most extreme member of the Tory party. The document listed a range of outlandish quotes she had made, including her description of BBC output as "filth" and her defence while Home Office minister of the policy of handcuffing pregnant prisoners. It also alleged that, as shadow Health Secretary, she wanted to privatise much of the NHS and reduce it to a safety-net service for the poor.

When the document landed on her desk, her hoots of laughter could apparently be heard across Smith Square. "It was an absolute joke," she said. In the face of such attacks, she appears to have turned into a Tory version of Jo Brand. She answers the phone these days with a gruff "Karloff here," and suggested at the party conference in Bournemouth that she could lend "an extra tyre" to a toy train. "Mr McCartney and I see eye to eye on a lot of things. That's mainly because we are the same height, though," she quips.

A cross between Hattie Jacques and Uncle Fester, the health job did allow her to score some hits against fellow bruiser Frank Dobson on the Government's NHS Achilles' heel, waiting list figures.

But in the long run, even the matronly Miss Widdecombe felt that health was, well, just a bit too cissy, and was delighted to be restored to her first love, Home Affairs. "It was the only thing I really wanted. You often don't get what you want in reshuffles, but I have been extremely blessed," she said.

Described by her critics as looking like the offspring of an Albanian goalkeeper and The Thing from the Black Lagoon, Miss Widdecombe makes few concessions to the makeover merchants.

However, as her mobbing by the teenagers showed, she has softened her image of late. The trademark pudding basin haircut has been morphed into a racing cyclist's helmet, her nails are immaculately manicured and she even sports a little Scotty dog brooch to offset her square frame. She is infamous for her early starts at Central Office, bustling into the building or the Commons at 8am most days.

A female dynamo, her energetic approach sees her pack in regular 16-hour days, combining her spokeswoman role with four or five visits to Conservative Associations in the sticks every week. In the past few days, the public has had a taste of a Widdecombe leadership of the Tories. She has bashed, clipped and headbutted the Government on everything from the non-lifting of the beef ban in Germany to Tony Blair's decision to fight the Italians on the beaches.

This weekend, however, politics will take a back seat. She is moving house in London, from Kennington to Elephant and Castle, to set up home with her elderly mother.

For a woman who once provoked uproar among Labour MPs for stating that every child had a duty to look after their parents, at least she is practising what she preaches.