Widdecombe leads return of the Tories' old guard

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The Independent Online
ANN WIDDECOMBE was yesterday promoted to the Shadow Cabinet by William Hague with the brief of putting some bite into the Opposition attack and bringing the Tories back in touch with ordinary people.

In a wide-ranging reshuffle, which consolidated the hold of the Euro- sceptic right, the Tory leader gave Peter Lilley the rank of deputy leader with the task of producing a hard-hitting right-of-centre manifesto for the next election.

His former shadow Chancellor post was taken by Euro-sceptic Francis Maude, while Brian Mawhinney, the shadow Home Secretary, and Stephen Dorrell, the education spokesman, voluntarily bowed out.

Miss Widdecombe, a former prisons minister who was once described as the Doris Karloff of the Tory party, has learnt to live with tabloid jibes, but Mr Hague is counting on her ability to speak for the gut instincts of the grass roots of the Tory Party to revive his party's hopes in the opinion polls.

Speaking to The Independent, she made it plain she does not intend to tone down her anti-abortion views as shadow Secretary of State for Health. She said she will be focusing on attacking her opposite number Frank Dobson on rising record waiting lists - and will be starting today at Question Time in the Commons.

But she will be driving much more of a moral crusade in health than her predecessor John Maples. "My personal stand will not be in any way diminished. The party itself has always regarded it as a matter for a free vote; as a matter of conscience. But my personal views are not for changing."

Teenage pregnancies - also at record levels - are a moral and social issue, she believes.

"We need to be much more fundamental in putting things in a moral context and saying there really are a lot of consequences to having children so young; not least is the lost youth of the individual."

One of the first calls to Miss Widdecombe's office after the news broke of her appointment was from the Catholic Herald. She converted to Catholicism in protest at the ordination of women in the Church of England.

Labour sources claimed last night that her robust views on abortion and capital punishment, which have made her a regular on panel shows such as BBC Question Time, would rebound on the Tories. But Miss Widdecombe said she wanted to attack Labour failures. "I don't want headlines about Widdecombe and abortion," she said.

To date, Miss Widdecombe's most notable scalp has been a member of her own side - famously sabotaging the leadership ambitions of Michael Howard with a devastating assault in the Commons, in which she described her former boss as having "something of the night about him". Asked whether she had since changed her view, she replied diplomatically: "That was last year."

She was leaving the memorial service for Mother Teresa of Calcutta at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, on Sunday night when her pager went off. "Suddenly my waist wobbled. It was the pager saying ring the leader's office." She politely told Mr Hague that she was due to give awards out to the blind, and arranged to meet him at 8.30am yesterday. She was offered health, and she took it with both hands.

"He gave me the brief and said he wanted to make sure that we got over Tory policies; that we showed up the holes in Labour policy; that we listened and thought and came up with ideas for next time."

Sharp right turn, page 10

Leading article, page 20

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