Former MP, novelist and celebrity ballroom dancer ANN WIDDECOMBE talks to Standard Arts Editor LESLEY POTTER about her life, loves and those oh-so-strident opinions of hers.
ANN WIDDECOMBE may be the nation’s favourite spinster auntie, but she’s certainly not the shrinking violet type who, upon retirement, slinks into a corner and takes up embroidery.
Even though she retired from politics three years ago at the 2010 general election, she’s still out there making headlines — and not just with her ballroom dancing prowess (or lack of it).
Only last month the national papers were screaming about her comments on women MPs, quoting her as saying that the 101 Blair’s Babes were all useless, and may as well have been 101 Dalmations.
This seems a bit below the belt for a woman who, along with Margaret Thatcher, managed to break through the glass ceiling of a male-dominated parliament.
Whatever happened to the sisterhood? But the ever-feisty Widdecombe is adamant that she was misquoted — even if she isn’t quite convincing as a stand-by-your-sisters feminist.
“I didn’t say women MPs are useless,” she says. “What I did say is that one particular woman MP, six months after the Blair’s Babes came in, came up to me in the corridor in Westminster and said, ‘Isn’t it horrible how the men are so rude to us?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, but isn’t it horrible how rude they are to each other?’
“She had just had a bad time in the chamber, and she was useless.
“She’s still there, and she’s still useless.”
One wonders who this useless babe can possibly be — presumably a Labour MP — but Widdecombe will not be drawn on a name, or even on a political colour, as this would be unfair to the woman in question, and besides, she must follow the unspoken gentleman’s code of Westminster not to get personal outside the chamber.
However, the fun is not entirely over. Widdy is on her soapbox and she has plenty more to say about women in politics.
“Women who go into parliament with a sense of grievance believe it’s a man’s world and everything that goes wrong is because they are a woman,” she says.
“I never thought of myself as a woman MP, but as an MP who happened to be a woman. I never looked for problems as a result of that. People who go looking for problems will find them.
“You get MPs in all shapes and sizes, very good ones and very bad ones. Some are exceptionally good at some aspects of the job, some are very good in the chamber and not so hot on other things. Or they may be good at constituency work or the thinking. Everybody’s got different talents.
“I could certainly hold my own in the chamber — and did. I did my level best with the constituency work which was reflected in the rises in my majority. But there were other areas where I wasn’t quite so good.”
By way of elucidating, she adds: “A lot of MPs are very good socially, but I tend to tell people what I think.”
Really, Ann? Well now there’s a revelation.
Ann Widdecombe was born in 1947 in Somerset and after a long time wearing out shoe leather on Tory campaigns, finally made it into politics in 1987. In between times she worked at Unilever trying (not terribly successfully, by her own admission) to market products such as floating bath soap. She also worked as an administrator at London University.
All this is laid out in her autobiography, Strictly Ann, which to be honest, is fairly humdrum reading. Nothing very exciting seems to have happened in Ann’s life. A three-year relationship at Oxford fizzles out when the man in question meets someone else, and that’s about it.
Widdecombe’s politics are strident, even for a Conservative. She has made it clear she’d like to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, for example. Political correctness is to Ann what dungarees and bovver boots are to a Blair’s Babe. But whether you agree with her politics or not, you can’t help but like her, partly because she is witty and funny and engaging to talk to — it’s a bit like conversing with a kindly teacher — and partly because unlike most MPs, you know where you stand with her. Even The Guardian, for goodness’ sake, has hailed her as a “national living treasure”.
On abortion, she takes the typical Roman Catholic stand (she converted to the religion in 1993).
“That’s about life, my dear,” she says. “The only protection the unborn child has is that of parliament. It has no voice at all and no power. We have the amoral situation in this country whereby you can have two children at exactly the same stage of gestation, and one is in a cot with all the resources available to make it live, while the other is being destroyed. The only difference is the wish of the mother. Nobody should have that power over another life.”
On capital punishment she is also clear: “There’s a moral argument that it should be available to the courts. Five years after it was banned the murder rate went up by 25 per cent, which just goes to show it was a deterrent, but it’s not something I have ever gone out and campaigned about because it isn’t ever coming back.”
However when asked about that old Catholic chestnut, contraception, she prevaricates.
“I’m not married and I’m never going to have children therefore I shut up on that one,” she says.
It’s an unusual thing for her to say, because she rarely keeps quiet about her views on many things, particularly women and their role in society, regardless of the fact that she has never had to sully her hands with children and marriage and all the emotional and hormonal ups-and-downs involved. However she gets away with it, and remains hugely popular, precisely because she is honest.
“The public are not put off by an MP speaking his or her mind,” she says. “That’s what they want to hear, even if they don’t agree with it.
“In 1987 when I was standing in Maidstone I produced a list of all the conscience issues I stood for — homosexual law, abortion, capital punishment. My agent nearly laid an egg. She said, ‘By doing that you have alienated just about everybody in the constituency’. But I said, ‘The important thing is they know what they are voting for’. People do appreciate that. A lot of people say, ‘Thank God, she’s saying what I would like to say’. But even people who don’t agree with me at all like the fact that I don’t flannel.”
What does she think, then, about last week’s announcement that 50 per cent of working mums feel guilty?
“I’m not surprised,” she says. “I think that’s the most natural instinct on Earth. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t feel guilty if they have to hand their child over to someone else.
“The shameful thing has been that for years all the pressure on women has been to go out and take part in the economy. They’re under enormous pressure. We should be valuing the full-time mother.
“I didn’t marry and I have no actual regrets at not having children but if I had I would like to think that despite all the pressure I would have been a full-time mother.
“When I was at Oxford I had a three-year love with a man. I did at one point think that I would like to marry him and even when we broke up I did rather think I might meet someone else and get married, but that Mr Right didn’t appear.
“It was never a priority for me to go out looking for him. I was doing other things. I never thought, ‘I must put politics first’. There was just no internal pressure to go and find somebody.”
So does she not have a maternal instinct? “I clearly don’t.
Otherside I would have gone looking.”
And she doesn’t mind living alone. On the contrary. She says she loves being busy all day, then going home and closing the door on the world.
“Someone asked me if I had my time again would I have done things differently? If I’d had to choose between politics and writing and all the other things I’ve done. But I’m very glad I spent my life that way in politics, it’s serious and satisfying.”
And her best moment in politics, she says, was not while battling it out with a male adversary in the chamber, but getting one of her constituents out of a Moroccan prison.
“He had been convicted and lost an appeal and was facing nine years in prison for a crime that frankly I don’t think even they believed he had committed,” she says. “His wife came to see me and I had to go out to Rabat never thinking for a moment I would be able to get him out, and he was released 18 months into that sentence. When I rang his wife up with the news and heard her reaction I knew that was what I went into politics for.
“As an MP you don’t make a jot of difference to the country, but you can make a tidal wave of difference to an individual.”
* Ann Widdecombe will be interviewed by ITV’s John Stapleton on Wednesday, October 2 at the Kenton Theatre. For tickets go to www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk or call 0118 972 4700.