Ann Widdecombe - The Tories' sweetheart

It's Thursday evening in Ottakar's bookshop in High Wycombe and Ann Widdecombe is confessing that she is "somewhat nervous". Given that she is about to face a genteel audience of about 20, including two impeccably behaved small children, this seems a little peculiar. Can this be the same woman who in October 1998, speaking for 45 minutes without a single note, roused Conservatism from its post-electoral narcosis and brought more than a thousand ecstatically cheering conference representatives to their feet?

But this is a first for the shadow Home Secretary. She is here not as a politician, but as a novelist, the author of The Clematis Tree, which to her amazement has just shot to No 11 in the hardback fiction lists.

The novel, which she wrote - for a £50,000 advance - on trains, planes and at home in Kennington, south London, late at night in the 18 months after the 1997 election, turns out to be literate, middlebrow, well paced, rather dark, and about something - specifically, the trauma inflicted on a marriage by the presence of a child mentally and physically disabled by a horrific road accident. While elements of literary London have been their usual catty selves about the novel, broader-minded reviewers have been highly flattering: "a credible and moving story" (Piers Paul Read) "It isn't easy to put down ... moving ... readable" (Ruth Rendell) "Widdecombe's bleak meditation on suffering is a pleasure to read" (Ian Hislop).

In High Wycombe, she reads the rather challenging passage which gave her book its title and in which the disabled child, surrounded by love, is compared to a dying sumac tree clad in a beautiful climbing plant. Afterwards, she patiently answers questions. She had started writing at about the age of 10 - a play called The Love of Lord Douglas, and a couple of years later, a novel filling three exercise books called Forest Trek in which most of the characters perished; as a child, she read Enid Blyton and Kipling; as an adult she became a fan of CP Snow, Pamela Hansford Johnson and, latterly, Joanna Trollope. She likes Miss Rendell's detective stories and she is in the middle of 'Tis by Frank McCourt. And she says she firmly intends to retire in her sixties and write pretty well full time.

She was surprised by how completely the characters took over the novel; she had intended, for example, that Isobel in the book should be a "rather dotty maiden aunt", but in the closing passages she turned out rather wilfully to be "a shrewd and worldly-wise woman". Since Miss Widdecombe is herself a maiden aunt, it is tempting to draw the obvious inferences. But she has the novelist's impatience with such speculation. And this seems fair. Like the first, her second novel - about a young French convent girl during the wartime Occupation who has an affair with a married German officer - will examine the terrible strains imposed on family life by some unexpected catastrophe. But there is little trace of any similar trauma in her own childhood.

Ann Noreen Widdecombe was born in Bath in 1947, the daughter of an Admiralty civil servant. When her father was posted to Singapore, she became sufficiently attached to her amah (the Chinese equivalent of nanny) and to her daughter, a few years older than Ann, still to visit them from time to time today. Back in Bath she went, because of its academic rigour, to the Roman Catholic convent school of La Sainte Union. Widdecombe would have preferred somewhere just a little less strict - there was compulsory Mass at 6.30am three times a week, bedtime at 7.30pm on Saturday nights even when she was 18, and it was unthinkable for girls to be outside without wearing their gloves. She became, under the benign influence of a Sister Mary Evangelista, particularly good at Latin. And as part of an Anglican minority in a very doctrinal Catholic school she learned, as she would say, more than 30 years later "to stand up for my beliefs".

Which were always Conservative as well as - at that time - Anglican. Her father was certainly a Conservative supporter. Widdecombe appears to have been pretty well immune to the influences of the Sixties, social as well as political, when she went to Birmingham University to read Latin. She was a good deal more engaged by ancient history than rock and roll. By now, she had started to think about politics as well as religion - she was a keen evangelical Christian and an admirer of Billy Graham; and a second degree at Oxford had special appeal. She read PPE but took a much greater interest in extracurricular political activity, becoming secretary and treasurer of the Union.

She also fell in love - for the first and only time in her life - with Colin Maltby, now a banker, whom she still sees, with his family, every year or so. "They were a quaint couple, doll-like, awkward, rather earnest," Widdecombe's contemporary and friend of 32 years, Gyles Brandreth, recalled in a piece about her earlier this month. "I remember them always holding hands and I think I assumed that because they were keen Christians they spent tortured hours agonising about sex and then got down to it like ferrets. Clearly I was wrong." Partly, perhaps, Brandreth had reckoned without Widdecombe's consistently strict opposition to sex before marriage. The affair fizzled out, apparently without rancour, after three years.

She had thought seriously about becoming a Latin teacher. But six years as an undergraduate were enough without going on to teacher-training college. After an unfulfilling spell at Unilever she took a more congenial administrative job at the University of London and spent all her spare time on politics. She didn't become an MP until 1987; her maiden speech was a striking attack on Labour defence policy. And she almost immediately won the respect of the Tory whips by becoming the leading Tory organiser of the forces behind David Alton's anti-abortion bill, to which the Thatcher government was forced against its will to allow parliamentary time.

But though broadly on the right, Widdecombe was not a completely natural Thatcherite. For a start she was a social authoritarian in a government driven much more by economic liberalism - an ideology which Widdecombe admittedly largely shared. It's true that in the one tangible sense in which her Conservative views have changed - during her time as a minister in the early Nineties - it has been to abandon a strongish pro-Europeanism for Euroscepticism (though she has carefully refrained from internally divisive public comments on Europe). But in every leadership election in her political lifetime in which the Conservative Party changed hands, she has forsaken the right wing to back a loser - Heath against Thatcher in 1975, Hurd against Major in 1990, and Clarke against Hague in 1997 - on the grounds, as she explained at the time, of Clarke's "experience and stature". She nevertheless passionately - and thanklessly - supported Margaret Thatcher in the first ballot against Michael Heseltine in 1990 - just as she would support Major unquestioningly in his "back me or sack me contest" in 1995.

All of which helps to make Widdecombe's post-1997 rise to prominence one of the most remarkable come backs of modern times. For her career nearly juddered to a halt in the mid-Nineties. At first it seemed highly promising. Having been brought into the government by Major, she was swiftly promoted as Minister of State, first in Employment, and then at the Home Office. She was highly competent; journalists who called her would find her brisk, truthful, on top of the brief and, within reasonable limits, informative. She was a political grown-up.

And then it all went pretty horribly wrong. The first and lesser reason was some quite virulently hostile press coverage based partly on a not quite accurate report that women prisoners had been handcuffed while in the labour ward. Some of this indefensibly concentrated on her supposedly un-babe-like looks, about which she has always been robust, telling Sue Lawley that "over-emphasis on physical perfection" was "dangerous" because of the way it excluded those who failed to match it, but adding: "If people say Widdecombe, you're overweight and you've got crooked teeth, I say you're right. So what?"

But much more serious was the by now exhaustively reported clash with Michael Howard over the conduct, and eventual departure of Derek Lewis, head of the Prison Service, whom Widdecombe staunchly defended and thought was quite improperly scapegoated by Howard - to the extent that she was quoted as saying the Home Secretary had "something of the night about him". At least one acquaintance thinks Widdecombe, who had converted to Catholicism in 1993, considered - fantastically - for a time that Howard had been possessed by demons. At any rate - as she revealed in her devastating Commons statement in May 1997 on the affair, which severely damaged Howard's chances of leading the party - she had considered resigning and regretted not having done so.

So how did she come back? Largely though her post-election performance in the Commons. That very statement, because of its unusual riskiness, probably itself helped. So did her barnstorming speech against fox-hunting in November 1997. So, too, did some fairly lethal questions to Tony Blair in the wake of the Ecclestone affair. Suddenly she looked too formidable to leave on the back benches, and the rest, more or less, is history.

Widdecombe is a more contradictory figure than she seems. She is in some respects more, if not liberal, at least more socially conscious than her critics sometimes allow. Her religious views are crucial. She practises what she preaches about family life by being determined that she will look after her 88-year-old mother - who has already come to live with her - at home.

On prisons she believes in rehabilitation as well as punishment. Indeed, she is a believer in redemption - and not just in the the next life. She hates the sin rather than the sinner, as fellow MPs who have been exposed in sexual scandals and have received nothing but sympathy from her can attest. One of her most powerful columns in the Catholic Times was a defence of the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull when he was pilloried in the press for an indecency offence committed 26 years earlier. On asylum, she appears genuinely to believe that the tough line taken by the Tories is helping to prevent the rise of extremist right-wing parties like the BNP. Nick Kochan, writing a biography of Widdecombe, also reports a formative incident from childhood in which she was having tea at Paddington with her mother and two black people were turned away. "We'd better go now," her mother said firmly.

On the other hand, it's doubtful whether her strong views on abortion, marriage as the absolute core of society, family values, and for that matter immigration, are in tune with the zeitgeist. According to one of her Tory critics, "Ann is a convinced authoritarian and social-engineer. Maybe this was appropriate in the 1970s and the early 1980s when it really did seem as if society might be breaking down but that hasn't happened and it isn't appropriate now." She has lost her battle - so far - to push the Tories to a clear policy of employer-based private insurance for health care.

What is remarkable about Widdecombe, however, is that her career is the exact reverse of the normal pattern in which a politician enters Parliament intent on becoming PM and then gradually realises that it isn't going to happen. For Widdecombe, such a possibility has only recently started to dawn. And the fact is that, as the new darling of the party activists, she could yet be a possible rival to Michael Portillo. Her unspun, anti-politician appeal has turned out to be a strength. Whether she could then lead the Tories to a general-election victory is another matter.

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