Widdecombe reveals her Thatcherite credentials

LISTENERS telephoned the BBC yesterday after hearing Ann Widdecombe, the junior social security minister, defending the imposition of VAT on fuel bills. The nation's milk had curdled over the cornflakes, writes Colin Brown.

Her uncompromising appearance on the BBC Today programme showed she could hold the line under fire; it sounded as if the Thatcher era had been born again, as though 'gunboat' diplomacy had been adopted by the Department of Social Security to see off the whingers.

Miss Widdecombe, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Social Security, appeared to be speaking the same language as Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who had told MPs that those in need would be protected against the effect on the Retail Price Index and nothing more. 'Why is it special? There is a rise in prices and that rise in prices will be reflected in the RPI and that itself is the basis for our ordinary uprating . . . I don't think something has happened which is so out of the ordinary that we in social security do not have the ordinary means of addressing it,' Miss Widdecombe said.

But, at 1pm, the line had changed again. Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, made it clear additional help would be given.

Colleagues say Miss Widdecombe is a no-nonsense minister, bustling, business-like and a believer in Thatcherite supply side economics. 'But she isn't hard-hearted - far from it,' one Whitehall insider said. 'She's very bright. In fact, there's a good mix between Ann and Peter on the right of the party, and Nick Scott (Minister of State) and Alistair Burt (Under-Secretary) on the left. They all get on very well.'

Miss Widdecombe, 45, elected for Maidstone in 1987, was a backbench fighter for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, which has campaigned for tighter abortion laws, and a member of the Church of England until she announced she was leaving over the ordination of women. She is observing Lent by abstaining from morning coffee.

Educated at Oxford, the daughter of a former defence chief, Miss Widdecombe includes researching Charles II's escape among her recreations. Yesterday, after her radio appearance, the Cabinet agreed its own escape route.

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