Profile: Embracing mass but not the masses: Ann Widdecombe MP, a stranger to compromise

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LAST WEDNESDAY, at a sung mass in the chapel of the House of Commons, the social security minister took her first communion - mass, as she must now learn to call it - after having been received into the Roman Catholic church. Its very public nature has raised hackles among members of both her new church and her old one.

Why did Ann Widdecombe do it?

The reason most widely given is her inability to accept the decision by the church of England, after November's synod debate, to ordain women as priests. Yet one like-minded MP claims, 'She was very much a middle-of-the-road Anglican, not naturally attracted to Rome at all. She is somebody who's come to it intellectually and in reaction to the unilateralism of the decision: she doesn't believe the Church of England had the right to make that decision. The vote on the ordination of women was merely the culmination of a whole set of attitudes - on abortion, euthanasia, even belief in a Day of Judgement - which meant that personal morality became less important as nobody was held accountable. So she was not always teetering on the edge of Rome: she was very distant from Rome.'

Ms Widdecombe is a much more complex person than the caricature image conveyed by her square jaw, cropped and greying hair, and short stocky figure. Far from a women's champion, she can sometimes be hostile to women. On the vexed issue of care for the elderly and handicapped, for instance, she once said, 'When Granny gets to be a nuisance and the family puts her into a home, I have heard it said time and again, 'My wife works and she would have to give up her job to look after her - why should she?' In my view, of course she, or her husband, should.'

Certainly her views are robust to the point of being implacable. She belongs to the far, though not the loony, right wing of the Conservative party. (No one, for instance, has ever accused her of racism.) But she is bone-dry on economic issues and Baroness Thatcher was her heroine. She herself has more than a touch of Thatcher stubbornness. Someone who has been close to her for a number of years described this graphically: 'Ann oozes power, determination, and an insatiable strength. She makes no compromise whatsoever; she is not a wishy-washy lady. If she were Secretary of State for Defence, she'd be in the tank, driving into Bosnia. I see her going up; her talents won't be wasted. She has an air of Margaret in her: there's a great deal of similarity.'

Ms Widdecombe went on record several years ago as saying, about her personal life, that she had had one relationship at Oxford that failed to translate into marriage and now marriage is 'a non-question'. Despite her masculine fierceness, she wears nail varnish, high heels and perfume. In recent years she was thought to be entering upon an - inevitably - conspicuous courtship with another Tory MP of similar views to her own. The two were seen hand-in- hand around the Palace of Westminster. Great hopes were held out for them; but in the end nothing came of it. For a romantic and emotional person such as Ann is under her tough exterior, it was a very public humiliation.

Yet an MP who calls himself a close friend says of this interpretation, 'They got on frightfully well; but although he is a very good representative of Rome, that didn't attract her. Marriage? I don't think that's her mind-set at all. I think she's a wonderfully open person, and many people could misunderstand that.'

It was not the first time that Ann Widdecombe had exposed herself to ridicule by mercilessly sexist MPs, who prefer their female counterparts to look like Virginia Bottomley. At the time of David Alton's Bill lowering the ceiling on legal abortions from 26 weeks, Ms Widdecombe convinced herself, after weeks of telephone lobbying, that she had enough MPs behind her to win the vote on a 20-week ceiling. She was wrong; and the Bill's subsequent defeat in the Commons in 1988 was one of the most harrowing moments of her political career. 'She crept out of Parliament a beaten woman. She had believed her own propaganda, and that's a characteristic of the extreme right. At 3am after the vote I was on the pavement and she came out in tears. She shared a taxi home that night with a Labour MP who told me afterwards that she was physically sick; she took it that strongly and that personally.'

MUCH of her character can be traced to her childhood and family background. She was born in Bath 45 years ago, but spent the first few years of her life in Singapore, where her father - then a senior naval armament supply officer - was based at the time. That naval discipline, that correctness and sense of duty, was inculcated into Ann at an early age, and reinforced when - although the family is Anglican - she was sent to a strict Catholic convent school back in Bath. From there she went in 1967 to Birmingham university to read Latin (surely another strand leading to Rome?) and thence to Oxford, for a further degree in PPE. Here the seeds of her political life were sown. She joined Spuc (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child), became secretary of the Oxford Union in 1971 and treasurer in 1972, before graduating from Lady Margaret Hall aged 25.

She soon became involved in local politics, and was elected Tory councillor for Runnymede District Council in May 1976. The direction of her ideology was never in doubt. She spoke up for capital punishment at the annual party conference in October 1978 and four years later was a co-founder, with Lady Olga Maitland, of Women and Families for Defence. In 1979 she set about getting herself into parliament and in 1987 she made it - in Maidstone, with a creditable 3,000 increase in the Tory majority.

As soon as she came in to the House, she vigorously supported the anti-abortion motion, and was one of the most doughty fighters for David Alton's Bill. One of her opponents in the many debates on abortion and embryo testing said: 'She was the most extreme reactionary in her attitude to women generally. She often takes the hard anti-woman line and this thread runs strongly through her. She has neither sympathy, compassion nor empathy for women.'

Yet Ms Widdecombe has a strong romantic streak, according to one political opponent. 'If you look at the reference books,' he said, 'you'll see that her declared hobby is studying the flight of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester. Now that's a very romantic thing to say: but it's all part of the same High Church tradition. She looks to the past for inspiration in many areas of her life.'

In November 1990 she was promoted by the incoming Prime Minister, John Major (although Douglas Hurd had been her candidate, if someone had to succeed Thatcher), to Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. This is not an easy or eye-catching job, being an unglamorous, unpopular policy backwater. Nor has it modified her uncompromising views. When a survey of 354 low-income families with children under five (for the National Children's Home charity) showed that one child in 10 and one adult in five had gone hungry during the previous month, Ms Widdecombe said crassly that the survey was welcome because it showed that four out of five adults had not gone hungry. She also insisted that there was no reason why a person on social security should not be able to afford a healthy diet.

THE first serious hiccup in her career occurred in a most surprising area for such a highly principled woman, and one not known for extravagance. The HFC bank was granted a judgment summons for pounds 5,389.71 against her at Lambeth County Court in May 1990. In March 1991, a petition for bankruptcy was filed against her by the bank. Ms Widdecombe was then earning pounds 42,272 p a as a junior minister. The case did not go ahead, so was evidently settled out of court. A spokesman for the HFC bank will only comment: 'I am happy to confirm that Ann Widdecombe MP was the person in question; that there was a Lambeth County Court judgment; that now there is no money owing but it is a matter of public record that we did apply for a judgment. Today Ms Widdecombe is no longer a customer of the bank and there are no outstanding issues or debts with us.'

Another setback came in March this year, when she miscalculated the reaction to the proposal to add VAT to fuel costs, and found herself the target of a public furore. On Radio 4's Today programme she asked blithely, 'Why is it special? I don't think something has happened which is so out of the ordinary . . .' By noon that same day, the Cabinet had already retreated from the severity of her line. Worryingly, it demonstrated her remoteness from the ordinary consumer's ability to afford basic necessities.

If she has a real disadvantage, it is that, as one down-to-earth MP said, 'The way her life has gone - remaining single, treating politics as a crusade not a career - she hasn't had much practice at ordinary living as experienced by most people.' Another Commons insider remarked: 'At the Department of Social Security she is not well liked: she's such a maverick, and being a woman maverick doesn't help. Yet she's not a wholly unattractive character. Whenever I've dealt with her she says, admirably and refreshingly, what she thinks regardless of the political consequences.' A political opponent said much the same: 'She does tend to see arguments in absolutes and that's a great disadvantage in politics. But I have a reluctant respect for the forthright way in which she puts her case: I think she's a formidable lady in many ways.'

Ann Widdecombe may yet have a big political career. She has the energy and commitment; it remains to be seen whether she can cultivate the tact, the judgement, and the ability to listen.

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