I meet Ann Widdecombe in Pembroke College. She is addressing the Theology Society. Her manner is brisk and acerbic; she is, in every gesture and utterance, the Ann Widdecombe who occupies such a curious position in popular culture—precise, idiosyncratic and faintly comical.
The former shadow-home secretary enjoys a unconventional post-political career. She resigned her seat in 2010, “just at the point when I would have been going into the cabinet” she remarks. But then, “that’s political luck”. Since then she’s continued writing detective novels, and won a more unlikely fame on Strictly Come Dancing, followed by a run in pantomime. I ask whether watching Ed Balls’ weekly performances make her regret her brief flurry onto the dance floor. (In particular, I remember one episode involving the use of a hoist of sorts). “No!”, she retorts, “it makes me quite nostalgic for it actually. Obviously I set a trend… I was the first actual politician to do it. Everybody at the time was saying that I shouldn’t be doing it, that it was undignified… Nobody’s saying that about Ed Balls! Everybody now takes it for granted.”
There’s a barely suppressed pride in Widdecombe’s reminiscence, yet simultaneously a characteristic desire to distance herself from the frivolities of celebrity. “I didn’t have any makeover… I didn’t have fake tan, I refused hairpieces, I refused false eyelashes.” “You didn’t give any ground?” I ask – in my best sceptical voice. “Oh, I gave some ground”, Ann concedes, “but I limited the glitter” and preserved ‘the integrity of what I really thought was important.”
Despite Widdecombe’s coolness, one can’t help feel there’s something rather cruel and mocking about the attention focused on figures like John Sergeant, herself and now Ed Balls—something rather degrading, both actually and metaphorically, about the motions they go through. Even before Strictly, Widdecombe was a figure of some bizarre fascination—peculiar, because of her unflinching views, outlandish in her unchanging appearance and antediluvian manner of speech. I can’t help mentioning the Victoria Wood sketch featuring a huge ensemble serenading Wood in a bowl cut, impersonating Ann; Did she watch it? “Of course I did…It was lovely”, Widdecombe only regrets not attending the recording. A sense of humour must be essential, I put it to her, not just on Strictly but in public life. “I couldn’t have lived without it.” she agrees. “I couldn’t have sustained twenty-three years in politics without it… The House of Commons is a pretty tense place. You’re dealing with matters that are massively important.”
“It’s also a place with a lot of cross-party friendships”, she adds, “and there is a lot of humour – a lot of the sardonic, gallows-type humour, as things are really going wrong.”
I ask about the Commons, particularly some of the reactionary anti-abortion positions she advocated there. “I don’t call it reactionary” she retorts immediately. “Some progress is good, some progress is bad, and some things that are called progress aren’t progress at all. And to me slaughtering children in the womb, just because you can’t see them and they cannot protest did not seem to me to be any advance in the right direction.”
I turn to her previously-expressed support for the death penalty—again, Ann’s response is ready and practiced. “What I’ve always said is there is a moral case for having it. I’ve never talked about reinstating it for one very simple reason… it ain’t gonna happen.” Each time the question has faced the commons the numbers in favour of reinstatement decline, yet, reflects Ann, if the question went to the public “it might well” go the other way. But doesn’t she think there’s a possible theoretical tension between her positions on abortion and the death penalty, I push on, finally reaching the end of my point. “No I don’t”, Widdecombe retorts, unfazed, “But if you cut me off every time I start speaking you wont know what I think about anything.”
Put in my place, I move to what might be more uncontroversial ground. Is she pleased that there is a women at Number 10? “I don’t give two-pence whether the Prime Minister of the day is male or female”.
“I thought you were going to say that”, I say, deciding I should give as good as I get.
“You were right” replies Widdecombe, quick as a ballroom-dancer. I now feel that Ann and I have established such rapport that it should really be us going into pantomime together. What does she really think about the new Prime Minister, then? “Theresa’s always been a very cautious mortal”, reflects Widdecombe. “During the Brexit campaign … She did not put her head above the parapets once.” But all that seems to have changed: “she’s being much bolder than I expected.” Does she hope May will drag the party to the right, closer where she herself would have liked it to be? “You’ve built in a presumption to that”, Ann scolds me. Of course she’s glad to see the end of the Cameron era. “I’m sorry for Cameron as a human being”, Widdecombe admits, but his behavior during the referendum was “extremely patronising” and fraught with ‘miscalculation”. “He assumed that it was going to go with him, that everyone who voted Brexit was a swivel-eyed loon of some sort.”
I wonder whether Widdecombeis depressed by the thought that a number of the moral causes she’s advocated seem doomed to inexorable decline. After all, she converted to Catholicism in 1993, following the ordination of women in the Church of England. “I’m never depressed if I’m standing up for what I think is right,” she insists. “I think of Wilberforce. It took years and years and decades to get to the point where slavery was abolished. He never gave up. He didn’t just say ‘I’m on the losing side.'” But surely the point is that it is her values that are those going into recession. “You are making another assumption. You are assuming that all the cause that I have taken are doomed to long term failure.” Well, doesn’t’ she think they are? “Frankly, I have no idea. All I know is one thing: you do what you think is right, not what you think may win.”
On the difference between victory and virtue, what does she make of Trump vs. Hillary? “That election is a disaster… it’s thrown up a choice between someone who’s pretty deceitful and someone who’s three quarters mad. I would vote neither – love to in fact.” We talk about Trump’s recent remarks concerning sexual abuse. “Obviously, I’ve no time at all for a lot of the things that Donald Trump says. All I would say to people is this: if he does get in don’t be alarmed… he’ll be restrained, as all American presidents are. They all find reality marches in.”
ill the same reality march in on the Labour party I wonder, or are they providing an effective opposition, despite what people say? “Well you are joking, aren’t you?”, Widdecombe fixes me with a look. “I talk to friends in the Labour Party and the consensus appears to be that they won’t split… [but] they’re going to ride it out and hope that the election result speaks for itself. I don’t know whether they’re right or wrong to do that.” The fear is, at least for them, that Corbyn will remain, regardless.
We move on to the campus politics of the young, in particular no-platforming. “It’s just unbelievable” – and she does seem truly lost for a rebuke, if only for a moment. She recalls the post-war atmosphere. “Colin Jordan and Oswald Mosley were still allowed to hold their rallies, in the name of freedom… because we believed as a nation that liberty of expression and opinion underpin democracy. We’ve lost that completely. That’s gone.
“When homosexuality was unlawful… nobody stopped those who believed that it should be lawful from campaigning for that… I might oppose the campaign, but I would never have said we shouldn’t allows the campaign. But the student attitude appears to be, if we don’t like what that person says we shouldn’t allow them to say it. How does that contribute to a democracy?”
In Widdecombe, one senses a passion for public life balanced by an uncompromising privacy. How does she account for her public notoriety? “No idea” she replies, rather unconvincingly. I suggest that she has a reputation for being quite private; perhaps this excites, rather than quells interest. “People don’t’ seem to mind what they ask these days… They’ll intrude anywhere.” That’s a cultural, as well as journalist trend though. “Like the Jeremy Kyle programme”, Ann chips in, “which just epitomises what’s gone wrong.”
“Are you a regular viewer?”, I inquire.
“Certainly not”, Ann corrects me. In all that we’ve discussed, I sense that faith plays a large role in supporting her characteristic stubbornness. Does she ever experience doubt? “Yes. But I think doubt is a means of growing… Faith is the antidote to doubt, but doubt is all a part of the growth of faith… Doubt can be a maturing force in faith.”
Might she, then, ever lose her faith? “No”, she replied, without a flicker of irony.