Ann Widdecombe on her career, life and visit to Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion
Having just read Ann Widdecombe give hardened interviewer Jeremy Paxman a run for his money in the Radio Times, WAYNE SAVAGE wonders how on earth he’s going to cope with the former MP dubbed Doris Karloff
“I shouldn’t be,” she laughs, as I confess to being nervous about our chat.
You can’t blame me. Her political career wasn’t without its moments – we’ll get to the IRA, shackling of pregnant prisoners and her alleged hand in Michael Howard’s infamous brush with Paxman later – and she’s not shy about speaking her mind.
Deciding to ease into it, we chat about her audience with show at Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion next Thursday.
The first half is your standard look at her life, time in Parliament, her novels – she’s currently working on her first detective book – and her telly work. It’s the second half she seems to enjoy more.
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“It’s entirely down to the audience; they ask questions and I answer them. I never know what’s coming and I never know whether it’s going to be political, literary, television, early life or cats,” she says, brushing aside any notion of being nervous.
“I’ve been at it for too long. The first bit I’ve done so many times before it’s almost autopilot. The second bit is where you really relate to the audience; that’s what keeps it fresh.”
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Nobody’s there to catch her out, I suspect that’s because they know better than to try. Although she recalls once getting a question even she couldn’t answer.
“Somebody asked me in all solemnity why anybody would want to have an affair with John Prescott and, do you know, I still don’t know the answer to that question,” she laughs.
She tries to keep things varied; after all not everybody’s interested solely in Strictly Come Dancing or politics. It’s not like there’s a shortage of subjects to quiz her on.
My first question is does she miss the cut and thrust of Parliament since standing down after 23 years as Conservative MP for Maidstone and then, in 1997, for the new seat of Maidstone and The Weald?
“No, not at all; I wouldn’t have left if I was going to miss it,” she fires back in that famous Widdy way of hers.
“I’d done it for long enough. I retired at exactly the right time, I had done it, thoroughly enjoyed doing it and wouldn’t have spent my life any other way but I had come to a natural end.”
Nothing could convince her to return.
“I’ll never stand again. I would’ve gone to the Lords if it had been offered but it wasn’t,” she adds, the merest hint of indignation in her voice perhaps.
Her career as an MP, under-secretary, minister of state, select committee member and shadow secretary was controversial at times. She’s not afraid to tackle those moments head-on at her shows.
“Occasionally those come up and on the whole it depends on what they want to ask. If they want to ask about controversies let ‘em, she says.
There were her comments about Lib Dem David Bellotti’s success in the Eastbourne by-election following the assassination of Tory politician Ian Gow by the Provisional IRA.
She also supported the reintroduction of the death penalty for the worst cases of murder – notably after Soham killings, which have hit headlines again after it emerged detectives investigating phone hacking at the News of the World have linked the probe to the case.
Most infamously, was the shackling of pregnant prisoners, which gave birth if you will to the earlier mentioned nick-name; a play on the horror actor Boris.
It’s a nick-name she found quite funny, “I used to pick up the phone if I knew it was a journalist on the other end and say Karloff speaking,” she laughs.
Back to the point.
“What actually happened is very different from the myth that’s grown up. If you believe that myth you’d think I would’ve shackled women in childbirth. In actual fact I stated very clearly it was never the policy of the Prison Service or any minister to keep women secured while in labour or childbirth,” Widdecombe explains.
Months before she’d joined the Home Office the Prison Service had done a survey of escapes and found a disproportionate number of women were escaping between prison and hospital.
“The reason was quite obvious; the rule was that men were routinely handcuffed between prison and hospital and you took the cuffs off when medical treatment commenced and women were not so naturally they bunked off.
“So the Prison Service and, as I say, this was yonks before I joined the Home Office, instituted a new rule whereby both sexes were treated exactly alike and the women were also secured between prison and hospital. Again the cuffs were taken off when treatment commenced or, in the case of women going in for childbirth, when labour was confirmed.
“After I joined the Home Office, and was scarcely even aware of the policy because it had never even come up to be debated, Channel 4 took a secret film of a female prisoner who’d gone from Holloway to the Whittington Hospital in London to give birth.
“That film showed her moving quite freely around the labour ward both before and after the birth. But there was a moment before she went into labour when she wanted to go out into the public area to have a smoke, so she was secured.
“If it had been a woman officer they would have been cuffed wrist to wrist and it probably wouldn’t have even been visible. As it happened it was a male officer on duty and for reasons or decency when you’ve got a male officer you do not cuff women directly to the man. You have a chain in-between.
“So the abiding image that went out across our screens was woman, bump, chains and it all grew from there.”
Widdecombe wasn’t backward in coming forward about other MPs either. Which brings us, most notably, to Paxman somewhat tongue in cheek I suspect blaming her for then home secretary Michael Howard’s infamous Newsnight nightmare.
In the final days of John Major’s government she took issue with Howard over the resignation of the director general of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, which Paxman asked Howard to clarify 14 times.
“I’ve actually been mighty careful [speaking about her fellow MPs] but that one was... you know I’d been pushed a stage too far over something I saw as unjust and it wasn’t a question of having a go at Michael it was a question of giving justice to his victim,” she says matter of factly.
Widdecombe believes politicians should say what they think; people elect them because of what they think. Politics, she says, is about courage and will; not about toeing the safe line.
The desire to speak out on issues she felt strongly about without the constraints of being a front bencher was one of the reasons she retired from the Shadow Cabinet in 2001.
“I left the shadow cabinet again for exactly the same reasons I eventually left Parliament. From 1990 when I became a minister until 2001 when I left the Shadow Cabinet, for ten of those 11 years I had been a minister or a shadow minister and I felt that was long enough,” she recalls.
“I didn’t say ‘that’s it, I’ll never be back’. I said ‘I need a break’. One of the reasons I quoted, one of the things I could do in that break was indeed just to speak up on issues which you can’t do when you’ve got collective responsibility and rightly so. There’s nothing wrong with collective responsibility, but most people need a time away from it.”
Was it a case of finding her own voice again?
“I didn’t have to find myself, I knew what myself was and I knew what my views were and it gave me an opportunity for expressing them.”
Looking back at her career, there’s nothing she’d do differently.
“Well I wish I’d become Prime Minister; but an awful lot of people want that. You might tweak this or that, you might have presented something in a slightly different way but no major regrets.”
She’s clearly still passionate about politics, touching later on the coalition government; necessary because the only option is minority rule, unthinkable given the current economic state, she says. She’s not a fan herself, because they break the relationship between what you vote for and what happens when your party gets into power.
Case in point, university fees. Not abolished as the Lib Dems wanted, but increased. Widdecombe feels too many youngsters are being sent to university anyway, leading to the vocational sector being eaten into and a shortage of basic skills like electricians, plumbers.
“Universities should be taking a minority of the population and should be highly academic, highly discriminating in their admissions. We should toughen up the examination system, get political arguments out of it because that’s what’s driving grade inflation. We should get political targets out of it altogether, stop interfering in university admissions and stop having targets for numbers of people going to university.”
One question that pops up at her audience withs is her view on women priests; one of the reasons she converted from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism.
“My uncle was a vicar, my brother was, my nephew is; there were hugely strong Anglican roots in the family so it wasn’t as if I had a passing interest in the Church of England but I thought it was wrong.
“That [women priests] was the final straw in a very large bundle. I was already pretty fed up with the Church of England before the ordination of women and particularly the debate that surrounded it - which wasn’t about is this theologically possible, it was all about if we don’t do this we won’t appeal to the modern world.
“I thought ‘no, hang on, that’s not actually the duty of the Church which is to lead rather than follow’. Before that we’d had the fourth most senior bishop in the Church of England denying articles of creed and remaining fourth most senior bishop in the Church of England.
“It appeared always the Church of England to blow about with every fashionable fad and I actually had a greater respect for Rome which even when it was unpopular stood firm on particular issues.”
Converting was a hard decision, but she has no doubts it was the right one, “It was the best decision I ever made. I’ve never been so spiritually content.”
Widdecombe’s cropped up on many telly shows in recent times – including an hilarious turn on Have I Got News for You, something she’d like to repeat – and has designs on chairing Countdown and presenting a Songs of Praise special.
Her defining moment has to be Strictly Come Dancing; her continued success looking to spark controversy of a kind not seen John Sergeant.
“I did enjoy it,” she laughs.
Looking back at some of her routines I wonder if she had any kind of bone, never mind a competitive one, in her body at all. She just seem focused on having fun.
“That’s what it was; I tried to describe this to people by saying look, everything I did when I was a member of parliament had the potential to affect other people. From the way I handled a single piece of casework to the things I voted on, to the policies I initiated as a minister.
“On Strictly Come Dancing I had power to effect nothing other than Anton’s [du Beke, her professional partner] shins and toes. If I fell down in a big heap it didn’t matter and it was that absence of responsibility that made it such fun to do.
“Look, I’m not a dancer. If I wanted to go on a competitive show I wouldn’t choose dancing. From Anton’s and my point of view we decided in the first two hours ‘look, this ain’t going to work if we take it seriously, we’ve got to provide entertainment’.”
I confess to voting for her; on the show that is.
“Thank you,” she laughs. “The best compliment I was paid during that whole time was at a station one day when a lady came up to me and said every time the programme came on her four-year-old would say to her ‘where’s the granny mummy, I want that granny to win’.
“That programme was meant to be family entertainment; I don’t have any bad memories of Strictly.”
With four books under her belt, she’s currently working on her fifth.
“Um, yes, now you enquire very politely. You say ‘are there any more in the pipeline’ my agent says ‘ARE there any more in the pipeline’. I’m writing my first ever detective novel at the moment.
“I’ve got to work in a way I don’t usually. I have some characters and a plot. Put the two together and then I see what happens. So it’s perfectly possible that things will happen that I don’t expect; that a character will take me by surprise.
“When you’re doing a detective novel you have to know from the moment you write the opening lines who did it, why and how. It’s a totally different challenge. If you get any inconsistencies you know you’re going to fail because people want to be able to chase clues, there are some very avid readers of detective novels who minutely follow the clues.
“I can tell you it’s a modern detective, but I can’t tell you beyond that; that’d give away too much.”
On that note I decide to quit while I’m ahead; after all this is a woman whose’s dissecting how to get away with murder.