Widdecombe tipped as `leader-in-waiting'

JACK STRAW'S comments about gypsies provided yet another high- profile media opportunity for the woman some Tories are saying is their leader-in-waiting.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, has impressed government ministers and her supporters while standing in for William Hague during his three-week holiday break. The MP for Maidstone and The Weald set an exhausting pace, with a schedule that included 140 media interviews, 15 major speeches and 16 constituency visits.

Ms Widdecombe has travelled 2,000 miles criss-crossing the country, wagging her finger at civil servants, Whitehall departments and, most of all, Tony Blair, over the past month. She was originally supposed to share the burden of running Conservative Central Office with the party chairman, Michael Ancram, but the party has allowed her free rein in the light of her effectiveness.

On everything from the botched lifting of the beef ban to the Prime Minister's sojourn in Tuscany, she has proved a tough yet witty campaigner on television and radio. She said of Mr Blair's family stay in the villa refurbished at the expense of local taxpayers: "For the first time a British prime minister has been declared in the foreign press to be a scrounger. How does that sit with his declaration when he came into office that he wasn't going to enjoy the trappings of power?"

Ms Widdecombe's popularity marks an impressive political comeback for the woman once dubbed Doris Karloff over the Tories' policy of handcuffing pregnant prisoners. Free of spin-doctored gloss, her approach contrasts sharply with that of Mr Hague, though opponents say she is "too extreme" to lead the party.

One Tory insider said her media performances had proved she could carry off the job of making her party electable once more. "She has done herself a lot of favours. Ann was only meant to be minding the shop but you could say sales have gone through the roof with Hague away," he added.

After sacking Peter Lilley, Mr Hague has no deputy, but Ms Widdecombe's success may have put her in pole position for the job if it were to be resurrected. Ironically, Ms Widdecombe's favourite Labour politician is her opponent over the dispatch box. "The thing is ... I really, really like Jack Straw," she told a friend.

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