Matthew Norman: Ann Widdecombe, the prisoners' pin-up. Who'd have thought it?

Thanks to 'Strictly', she has left Michael Howard in the nocturnal darkness, and staggered blinking into the sunlit uplands of public fondness

Where's Ann Widdecombe when you need her? This is not a rhetorical enquiry. We know exactly where she is. She's in a dance studio, in the arms of high camp hoofer Anton Du Beke, preparing her latest steps from Ballet Heffalump for Saturday night's edition of Strictly Come Dancing.

Not so long ago, our most celebrated virgin since Elizabeth I would have been otherwise engaged yesterday. She'd have been on every single media outlet with her phone number, railing against prisoners winning the right to vote in general elections. "Darn silly" is how she described the human rights case that has led to this judgment when it was brought almost 10 years ago. The wheels of justice grind almost as exceeding slow as she grinds across the dancefloor to the bemusement of Mr Du Beke, who risks waking up in Stoke Mandeville with Jimmy Savile now then-now thenning in his face every time he lifts her.

Back then, as William Hague's shadow Home Secretary, her reputation was founded on an issue it feels indelicate, on Carry On double entendre grounds, to refer to in the context as penal. Her stout defence of handcuffing female prisoners during childbirth had long before, so it seemed, concreted her image as the Cruella de Vil of deranged psychospinsters.

And yea behold, here she stands today, an adored music hall turn, weekly defying the judges' low marks to survive thanks to her popularity with the punters at home. Unlike John Sergeant, she won't walk away (like another political ballroom star wannabe, she's a fighter not a quitter). Keeping her on Strictly has become an imperative for more than the gruesome hilarity when she is winched, liked a beached whale, on to the floor. Miss Strangelove... How We Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Ann Widdecombe is, even by the standards of the celeb reality TV age, a strange and strangely gratifying tale.

Part of the story, admittedly, is familiar. One of the nice things about the British is our reverence for staying power, how we come to embrace those we once loathed because of their stoic refusal to take the hint and crawl away. Strictly's Bruce Forsyth is a perennial public nominee for a knighthood now, but in the 1970s everyone despised both Brucie and his fellow game show theorist Bob Monkhouse, so popular by the time of his death, for their smarm and insincerity.

Alan Bennett, who had she not existed might have created Widders and cast Patricia Routledge to play her, said that if you live to 90 in England and can eat a boiled egg, everyone thinks you deserve the Nobel Prize. Or in Ann's case, if you live to 63 and can manage two waltz steps vaguely in time, everyone wants to adopt you from the rescue home of national life and make you their pet great aunt.

Yet there is far more to Widders' appeal than gameness and stickability. The erstwhile Doris Karloff has whored herself around the production companies for years (Celebrity Fit Club, Louis Theroux and so on) without coming close to thawing the national heart. The medium of dance has proved the catalyst for an alchemical change in the public reaction, drawing out the girlish yearning as it so often has before. Think of Liesl in The Sound of Music, 16 going on 17 as she twirled around Ralph longing for the first bloom of womanhood. Think of the lovelorn Eliza Doolittle, who could have danced all night with Freddy. Remember these filmic archetypes of dreamy ingenues on the cusp of erotic self-discovery and... alright, alright, maybe Widders doesn't leap balletically to mind. But the craving for affection is there in every coy glance at Du Beke, every coquettish exchange with Craig Revel Horwood.

Thanks to Strictly, she has left Michael Howard behind in the nocturnal darkness, and staggered blinking into the sunlit uplands of public fondness. Like most of us, only more so for all the decades of repression, all she ever really wanted was to be loved. Now, at a distance, she is.

She would dismiss all that as psychobabble, of course. She'd probably lob in a pish, a piffle and a poppycock after the fashion of fellow national treasure Stephen Fry, of whose thoughts on the female sexual appetite she may be a rare supporter. But it's true. There's a loneliness and vulnerability about her that combines with the oddity to create a beguiling hybrid. She is the spiritual issue of Margaret Rutherford and Eleanor Rigby. Top that with the pristine cherry of covert sweetness – how can you watch her haul that astounding bosom across the floor without hearing an echo of the little girl in the pink tutu dreaming of being Margot Fonteyn, but betrayed by genetics? – and the cocktail is irresistible.

It wasn't always so. In her shadow cabinet days I had lunch with her once, and she was horrendous. Her stridency and unceasing aggressive interruptions rendered Mrs Thatcher a neurotic version of Corrie's Mavis Wilton simpering "Ooh, Rita, I don't really knoooow". Widders was livid about everything, the scattergun fury evidently generated by the kind of chronic psychic pain she would stoutly bat away as more rot and balderdash. Introspection is never the way with people who fill their lives with frantic activity to fill an emotional void.

Call it stoicism or denial, she never showed a chink in the chainmail. What affection she knew, much as with her soul sister Susan Boyle, was poured into a cat. Now, thanks to Strictly, she has gone on an incredible journey from Sumo to SuBo; from the shouty, Virgin Grizzly proto-Tea Party matron to the sequinned dolly bird whose unique take on the paso doble sprinkles magic on our Saturday nights.

Somewhere here is what this Catholic convert would recognise as redemption, or what the classics graduate in her might see as a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid. The renascent Widdecombe has emerged from the chrysalis of batty old troutdom into a gauche but adorable butterfly, and it does the soul a power of good to behold. This is why I will be dialling her number on the weekend, and why I suspect that the inmates of HMPs Belmarsh and Holloway, whatever they feel about her disdain for their participation in more trivial plebiscites, will be voting for her too. Ann Widdecombe, D Wing pin-up and nation's sweetheart. Who'd ever have believed it?

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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