Widdecombe to retire from the Commons and spend more time walking her dogs

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Indy Politics

Parliament will never be the same again. Ann Widdecombe, the fiery, one-woman campaign bandwagon, is among the MPs who are preparing for retirement at the next general election.

However, like Mark Twain, talk of her political demise is premature. She told friends at a private party at the Commons to mark her 60th birthday that if Gordon Brown called a general election next week, she would carry on for one more term.

The Conservative MP for Maidstone, who has become a household name for her outspoken views, her appearance on ITV's Celebrity Fit Club, her series of five sex-free novels and her website, the Widdy Web, is ready to retire to Dartmoor where she plans to spend her time writing and walking her dogs.

But the threat of a snap election could change her plans. She is regarded by some fans as irreplaceable, and the Kent constituency she has represented for 20 years has not selected another candidate.

"If he holds an election this autumn, I will stand because we have no candidate in place," she said. "I have always said that if Parliament runs a normal length, which is to say next year or beyond, I will not be standing again. I haven't changed my mind."

The Liberal Democrat peer David Alton, a close friend who was among the 200 guests at her party, said: "She is on tenterhooks for Brown's decision. I think politics would be the poorer without characters like Ann.

"For the pearl to emerge from the oyster, it needs a bit of grit and she provides the grit in the oyster."

Miss Widdecombe will go down in the annals of political history for coining the damning phrase about her former boss, Michael Howard, in the Commons as having "something of the night" about him.

At least Miss Widdecombe stabbed Mr Howard in the chest. She still bristles at the way she was "stabbed in the back" by colleagues for calling for zero tolerance on drugs at the Tory party conference in 2000.

It came at a time when the Tory leadership under William Hague wanted to reform the image of the Conservatives. It led to confessions by seven senior party members that they had tried cannabis, and was designed to show she was out of step with the modern Tory party. The following year, she left the Shadow Cabinet.

Like Edith Piaf and Norman Lamont, she had no regrets. "None whatever," she declared. But one of her biggest disappointments was not gaining the support she needed to mount a challenge for the leadership in 2001. "I would have liked to have gone for the leadership," she said. "But it's no good brooding."

She remains gloriously out of step with David Cameron's brand of liberal Conservatism – she did not vote for him in the 2006 leadership election. She told party activists recently: "I wish we would stop endlessly talking about 'change'. Change implies a fundamental alteration of character."

She has never been afraid to cross swords with party leaders or fight for causes in which she passionately believes. A committed Christian who converted to Catholicism, she made her mark in the Commons with a powerful speech opposing abortion. She also appalled some Tory MPs by supporting the Government's campaign to ban fox-hunting. But, she says one of the strongest memories of her political life was securing the release of a constituent from a Moroccan prison. She recalled: "It all seemed a completely hopeless case but, by going out to Rabat and badgering various Moroccan ministers, I was able to secure his release."

Ministers from Morocco to Westminster are likely to breathe a sigh of relief when she finally steps down.

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