'Nothing personal: Howard's just not fit to lead the country'

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Indy Politics
The gloves are off. Michael Howard's camp has set the rules, and if they want to fight dirty, Ann Widdecombe is determined that the former home secretary will live to regret it.

Mr Howard's camp, she believes, planted an untrue story in the Daily Mail that she had taken a stand against her erstwhile boss out of adoration for Derek Lewis, former director-general of the prison service, who had wooed her - "a convent-educated spinster" - with chocolates and flowers.

Yesterday, the former prisons minister cancelled a trip to Scotland where she was going to make a television programme about politicians and image, called Mr Lewis to apologise for the "disgusting lie" and declared on television that the story was a "demonstrable lie".

Ms Widdecombe then told a friend: "Is that the best they can do? It is a typically snide piece of untruth one associates with certain people.

"I was warned when I said I wanted to lay certain facts before the House I that would expect a certain amount of per- sonal vilification. But this does not persuade me to back off. I am quite prepared to fight."

Ms Widdecombe, 49, Oxford-educated and a former London University financial administrator, converted to Catholicism three years ago. She says she passionately believes in "what is right", and studiously tried not to be personal.

She told friends: "I do not want him or his family to suffer. Why should there be anything personal between us? I was not sacked, I was not used as a scapegoat. In fact, Michael Howard and I agreed with most matters of policy.

"But I simply do not believe he is fit to lead the Conservative party or the country. I did not say anything before the election, but I was determined months ago that the truth shall be out.

"There is now, of course, a huge amount of disinformation. I read in the same paper which printed the story about Derek Lewis and myself that senior party figures have pleaded with me to drop the action. This is simply not true.

"I spoke to someone in the Whips Office and he simply asked me if I intended to go ahead, and I said 'yes'. That was the end of the matter.

"I had worked with four secretaries of state, Hunt, Newton, Lilley, and Portillo, before Michael Howard, and whatever their politics they had been scrupulously correct in their behaviour. I am glad Mr Howard was not the first one I worked under, otherwise I might have thought about leaving politics."

Ms Widdecombe has said that not only did Mr Lewis not instigate her actions against Mr Howard, he asked her to stop, because the price might be too high to pay.

She has told friends: " What I have done is my own decision, I am not doing it on behalf of anyone. I know I am up against the apparatus of the Howard camp, but I am very much on my own. I have got to be very careful, and have the material to prove everything I say. That is the correct and wise thing to do."

Ms Widdecombe has seen at first hand what happens when a politician goes into the bear-pit without full grasp of the facts. Jack Straw managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory in his debate with Mr Howard.

Ms Widdecombe told friends: "I was sitting there cringing. Of course I was loyal to my government. But Straw got simple details wrong, and that allowed Michael Howard to slip away.

"He is a Houdini, he has escaped time and again, and who knows how this thing will turn out."

She will send Mr Howard a full text of her accusations before it is raised in public. She added that her next move would be later this week.

"Will this damage the future prospects of a ministerial career for me? Who knows. But I have no regrets."