Ann Widdecombe: Celebrity Crack Den

Addicts on a crime-ridden council estate are the latest TV target after 'Celebrity Fit Club' for the formidable former Tory Home Office minister turned reality star. She is unlikely to be fazed, discovers Liz Hoggard
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On paper, it is an irresistible clash: in one corner are teen vandals who terrorise local communities; in the other is the former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe.

When news broke that the Tory MP had spent a week on a challenged inner-city housing estate, making the documentary Ann Widdecombe v the Hoodies (which starts tomorrow night), the media response was predictable. "It's hard to decide which is more frightening: a gang of skulking hoodies in a dark alley - or Ann Widdecombe on the warpath," declared The Mail on Sunday.

Cynical pundits suggested that Widdecombe, now a veteran of reality shows such as Celebrity Fit Club, had become fame-obsessed.

Actually Widdecombe and the hoodies have history. Five years ago, when she announced she would not be standing for the Tory leadership, she held a press conference at the Arden Estate in east London.

"Everybody else was choosing very swish places to announce their candidatures," she laughs, "but I went there to announce that I wasn't standing, and to highlight that this is Britain in the 21st century and it's unacceptable. There are two Britains and they live side by side." Since then she has campaigned for "the forgotten decents" - law-abiding residents in areas blighted by antisocial behaviour. "All they want is to live normal, unmolested lives. And they can't, as every day is made a hell, through vandalism, thuggery or intimidation."

Ann Widdecombe knows her housing estates. Early on in her political career, she spent time on sink estates in Sheffield, Nottingham and Hull. Today, unlike many Tory MPs who inhabit swanky villas in Notting Hill and Kensington, she lives just behind south London's gritty Elephant and Castle.

So when ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald came calling, asking her to make a programme on Asbo Britain, she was well prepared. Her only stipulation was that they film in London so that she could get to the Commons and keep an eye on Rita, her elderly mother of 92, who lives with her.

In Ann Widdecombe v the Hoodies, she splits her time between the crime-ridden Andover Estate in Islington and Brixton's Myatts Field Estate. It doesn't make for pretty viewing. She is told to "fuck off"; a firework whizzes past her head; she wades through excrement; and joins a police raid on a crack den.

But Widdecombe is nothing if not tenacious. In one scene, she squares up to a gang and demands: "Why do you wear your hood?", getting one youth to admit: "I wear it to feel safe. I want to scare people who scare me. Not old ladies." She denies being brave. "I always had a film crew with me. It was hardly in the interests of the programme for me to get knifed."

For years Widdecombe was a cartoon monster (her nickname was "Doris Karloff"), but now in her late fifties, she is looking rather marvellous. With a new ash-blond bob, and slimline physique, she bounds along like a Girl Guide. Our interview takes place near Marylebone's King Edward VII hospital, where she's been spending time since her mother was admitted after a fall.

It's easy to mock Widdecombe. But in the flesh the biggest surprise is how reasonable she is. "Don't feel guilty," she tells me, when I confess how humbling I found her documentary, "because you'll carry those images with you for ever."

But then Widdecombe is a brilliant anomaly: an anti-hunt campaigner who believes in the death penalty; a humanitarian who in 1992 demanded that pregnant prisoners were handcuffed. Oh, and three years ago, she opposed the repeal of Clause 28, together with fellow Roman Catholic MP Edward Leigh.

It's not personal, she insists. She just hates the idea of promoting homosexuality "to three-year-olds in schools". Does she have gay friends? A pause. "I have those that are because they've said so, and others I strongly suspect are, but have never said so. But I wouldn't dream of asking the question. It's inappropriate for the state to take a view about what goes on in the bedroom."

There's nothing snobby about Widdecombe. She fits in anywhere - a legacy of her expat childhood. "I went to five different schools before I was 11." Listening to her talk about her documentary, the only difference she sees between her life and that of the long-term unemployed is "structure", she says. "I know what happens in the morning. I have to get up, I have to be this, I have to do that. Whereas in many of the families where the parents are on drugs or drink, it's left to the older siblings to get the younger ones up and look after them."

Ann, I say, you sound like an old-style leftie. She bristles. "The whole time I was at the Home Office, every time I talked about rehabilitation in prisons I'd get these headlines - "unexpectedly liberal", "unlikely champion". I used to think: don't people realise we don't neatly divide into blocks of views? If we insist on seeing somebody as left/right, wet/dry, cuddly/severe, we've lost the art of sensible debate."

When it comes to crime, she backs former New York Mayor Giuliani's campaign of zero tolerance - but in episode two of the documentary, she meets Camilla Batmanghelidjh, of the London charity Kids Company, who reminds her that years of neglect by Tory and Labour governments have produced a generation of feral kids with no reason to care. It's a remarkable meeting between two women who, despite their differences, have much in common.

The brilliance of Ann Widdecombe v the Hoodies is that she's not actually very interested in the hoodies. Her real focus is on the terrified council tenants: one woman hasn't dared go out alone for two years; a disabled man creates a ground-floor garden, only to have acid poured over it.

When I was a student in the late 1970s, loathing Ann Widdecombe was a spectator sport. But I like her, dammit. It's almost sad she's retiring at the next election. But she'd love to host more episodes of Have I Got News for You. Then there are the unflattering cartoons of herself she collects as a hobby.

"Steve Bell is very puzzled by this. I'll ring up and say, 'Can I buy that one, please, I thought it was hilarious.' And he'll say, 'You weren't supposed to!'"

CURRICULUM VITAE: The making of a Tory icon

Born: Bath 1947. Attended Royal Naval School, Singapore, La Sainte Union Convent, Bath. Read Latin at Birmingham University, then PPE at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Worked as a university administrator for 12 years.

1976 -1978: Runnymede district councillor.

1979-1983: Contested the seat of Burnley, then Plymouth Devonport against David Owen. 1987: Became MP for Maidstone.

1991: Joined John Major's government as under-secretary of state for social security.

1992: Became Home Office minister in charge of prisons.

1993: Converted to Catholicism after Church of England decided to ordain women.

1997: Served as shadow health secretary and shadow home secretary under William Hague.

2001: Declined to serve in Iain Duncan Smith's shadow cabinet.

2002: Took part in the ITV programme Celebrity Fit Club.

2005: Filmed agony aunt TV programme, Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue.

'Ann Widdecombe v the Hoodies: Tonight', ITV1, 8pm, tomorrow and Friday 19 January