'I found it horribly superficial'

Ann Widdecombe appears to be a politician not unduly bothered by her image: going blonde was perhaps not what a makeover expert would have ordered. Slavish brand loyalty to the party line is also not her forte: her website features the late Labour politician Tony Banks, campaigning with her against hunting. Yet her first job was about brand images: she worked in the Unilever marketing department.

The Right Honourable Member for Maidstone and The Weald remembers the industrial action by miners in 1973 as the time when she had to poke around in pitch-black, freezing warehouses full of soap-powder cartons. This was not some kind of undercover operation but part of her day job, checking the stocks of Unilever products. Unfortunately her stint on the road, shifting Persil, Lux, Lifebuoy and Knights Castile, coincided with the lengthy power-cuts caused by the industrial action. Yet the murky warehouses were not the main problem. The soft-soap, in both senses, was a hard grind.

"Unilever was a mistake," she says now. The firm was fine - successful and well run, with a good personnel policy. It was marketing in general which got her in a lather: "I certainly wouldn't put people off it but it wasn't for me." It had seemed a good idea after she left university. "Everybody was going into merchant banking," she recalls. Then the Unilever recruiters arrived on the "milk round". "We seduced each other," is her explicit description. She liked the look of them and they liked what they had seen of her in a televised debate.

As well as going on the road with the soapy products, the bright young trainees worked in the Port Sunlight factory in the Wirral during their 18-month training. "The actual job was devising advertising material and brand images. It wasn't the place for me. They wanted your soul as well as your heart. It was the sheer hollowness of it - I found it horribly superficial, if fascinating."

Although she remained at Unilever for two-and-a-half years, it wasn't long before she began looking around. "There was no unpleasantness. I made lots of friends and one of them is still in touch." She left to become a university administrator for 12 years. "I was actually doing a job, instead of telling people which soap to use."

In addition, the university did not object to political activity; she was a councillor, a distraction which Unilever had not been too keen on. Also, it was a relief no longer to be forced to go along with the claim that each Unilever soap powder "washed whiter". Well, they couldn't all be the most efficient. Unfortunately, "Doesn't wash quite as white as our other powders" would not have been the world's most brilliant slogan.

'Father Figure' by Ann Widdecombe is published by Orion, £6.99