Ann Widdecombe

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The Right Honourable
Ann Widdecombe
DSG
Widdebookclub (cropped).jpg
Shadow Home Secretary
In office
13 January 1999 – 18 September 2001
Leader William Hague
Preceded by Sir Norman Fowler
Succeeded by Oliver Letwin
Shadow Secretary of State for Health
In office
24 May 1998 – 13 January 1999
Leader William Hague
Preceded by John Maples
Succeeded by Liam Fox
Minister of State for Prisons
In office
28 February 1995 – 2 May 1997
Prime Minister John Major
Preceded by Michael Forsyth
Succeeded by Office Abolished
Member of Parliament
for Maidstone and The Weald
Maidstone (1987–1997)
In office
11 June 1987 – 6 May 2010
Preceded by John Wells
Succeeded by Helen Grant
Personal details
Born (1947-10-04) 4 October 1947 (age 67)
Bath, Somerset, England
Nationality British
Political party Conservative
Residence Haytor, Devon
Alma mater University of Birmingham
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Religion Roman Catholicism

Ann Noreen Widdecombe, DSG (born 4 October 1947) is a former British Conservative Party politician and has been a novelist since 2000. She is a Privy Councillor and was the Member of Parliament for Maidstone from 1987 to 1997 and for Maidstone and The Weald from 1997 to 2010. She was a social conservative and a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. She retired from politics at the 2010 general election. Since 2002 she has also made numerous television and radio appearances, including as a television presenter. She is a convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.

As an MP, Widdecombe was known for opposing the legality of abortion, her opposition to gay rights and her support for the re-introduction of the death penalty and the retention of blasphemy laws.

Early life[edit]

Born in Bath, Somerset, Widdecombe is the daughter of Rita Noreen (née Plummer; 1911-2007) and Ministry of Defence civil servant James Murray Widdecombe. Widdecombe's maternal grandfather, James Henry Plummer, was born to an Irish Catholic family of English descent in Crosshaven, County Cork in 1874. She attended the Royal Naval School in Singapore,[1] and La Sainte Union Convent School in Bath.[2] She then read Latin at Birmingham University and later attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). She worked for Unilever (1973–75) and then as an administrator at the University of London (1975–87) before entering Parliament.[2]

Councillor[edit]

From 1976 to 1978, Widdecombe was a councillor for Runnymede District in Surrey.[3] She contested the seat of Burnley in Lancashire in the 1979 general election and then, against David Owen, the Plymouth Devonport seat in the 1983 general election.[4][5]

Member of Parliament[edit]

She was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1987 general election as member for the constituency of Maidstone (which became Maidstone and The Weald in 1997).[6]

Political views[edit]

As an MP, Widdecombe expressed conservative views, including opposition to abortion; it was understood during her time in frontline politics that she would not become Health Secretary as long as this involved responsibility for abortions. Although a committed Christian, she has characterised the issue as one of life and death on which her view had been the same when she was agnostic.[7] Along with John Gummer MP, she converted from the Church of England to the Catholic Church following the decision of the Church of England on the Ordination of women as priests.[8] In her speech at the 2000 Conservative conference, she called for a zero tolerance policy of prosecution, albeit with only £100 fines as the punishment, for users of cannabis. This was well received by rank-and-file Conservative delegates.[9]

In 2003, Widdecombe proposed an amendment opposing repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local governments. Out of the 17 parliamentary votes considered by the Public Whip website to concern equal rights for homosexuals, Widdecombe took the opposing position in 15 cases, not being present at the other two votes.[10] Widdecombe has also expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage, introduced by David Cameron's government in 2014, claiming that "the state must have a preferred model" and "a union that is generally open to procreation".[11]

She is a committed animal lover and one of the few Conservative MPs to have consistently voted for the ban on fox hunting.[12]

She has expressed a variety of views on climate change but has been opposed to legislation reducing emissions. Her views on the subject appear to have hardened over time. In 2007, she wrote that she did not want to belittle the issue but was sceptical of the claims that specific actions would prevent catastrophe,[13] then in 2008 that her doubts had been "crystalised" by Nigel Lawson's book An Appeal to Reason,[14] before stating in 2009 that "There is no climate change, hasn’t anybody looked out of their window recently?"[15] In 2011 she expressed the view that "climate change money should go to armed services".[16]

Over the years, Widdecombe has expressed her support for a reintroduction of the death penalty, which was abolished in the UK in 1965. She notably spoke of her support for its reintroduction for the worst cases of murder in the aftermath of the murder of two 10-year-old girls from Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002. She supported the argument that the death penalty would have deterrent value, as within five years of its abolition the national murder rate had more than doubled.[17]

In government[edit]

Widdecombe joined John Major's government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1990. In 1993, she was moved to the Department of Employment, and she was promoted to Minister of State the following year. In 1995, she joined the Home Office as Minister of State for Prisons and visited every prison in Britain.[18]

Shadow Cabinet[edit]

After the fall of the Conservative government to Labour in 1997, she served as Shadow Health Secretary between 1998 and 1999 and later as Shadow Home Secretary between 1999 and 2001 under William Hague.[19]

Leadership contest and backbenches[edit]

During the 2001 Conservative leadership election, she could not find sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs for her leadership candidacy. She first supported Michael Ancram, who was eliminated in the first round, and then Kenneth Clarke, who lost in the final round. She afterwards declined to serve in Iain Duncan Smith's Shadow Cabinet (although she indicated on the television programme When Louis Met..., prior to the leadership contest, that she wished to retire to the backbenches anyway).

In the 2005 leadership election, she initially supported Kenneth Clarke again. Once he was eliminated, she turned support towards Liam Fox. Following Fox's subsequent elimination, she took time to reflect before finally declaring for David Davis. She expressed reservations over the eventual winner David Cameron, feeling that he did not, like the other candidates, have a proven track record, and she was later a leading figure in parliamentary opposition to his A-List policy, which she has said is "an insult to women".[20] At the October 2006 Conservative Conference, she was Chief Dragon in a political version of the television programme Dragons' Den, in which A-list candidates were invited to put forward a policy proposal, which was then torn apart by her team of Rachel Elnaugh, Oliver Letwin and Michael Brown.[21]

In an interview with Metro in September 2006 she stated that if Parliament were of a normal length, it was likely she would retire at the next general election.[22] She confirmed her intention to stand down to The Observer's Pendennis diary in September 2007,[23] and again in October 2007 after Prime Minister Gordon Brown quashed speculation of an autumn 2007 general election.[24]

Widdecombe was one of the 98 MPs who voted to keep their expense details secret.[25] When the expenses claims were leaked, however, Widdecombe was described by The Daily Telegraph as one of the "saints" amongst all MPs.[26]

In May 2009, following the resignation of Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons, it was reported that Widdecombe was gathering support for election as interim Speaker until the next general election.[27] On 11 June 2009, she confirmed her bid to be the Speaker.[28] She made it through to the second ballot but came last and was eliminated.[29]

Widdecombe retired from politics at the 2010 general election. It was rumoured that she would be a Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, but she refused. She has since spoken about her opposition to the Coalition Government and her surprise at not being given a peerage by David Cameron.[30]

Recognition[edit]

Widdecombe was appointed an Honorary Fellow of Canterbury Christ Church University at a ceremony held at Canterbury Cathedral on 30 January 2009.[31]

Personal life and family[edit]

Until her retirement at the 2010 general election, Widdecombe divided her time between her two homes – one in London and one in the village of Sutton Valence, Kent, in her constituency.[32] She sold both of these properties, however, upon deciding to retire at the next general election.[33][34] She shared her home in London with her widowed mother, Rita Widdecombe, until Rita's death, on 25 April 2007, aged 95.[35] In March 2008, she purchased a house in Haytor, on Dartmoor in Devon, to where she has now retired.[36] Her brother, Malcolm (1937–2010), who was an Anglican Canon in Bristol, retired in May 2009 and died of metastatic oesophageal cancer on 12 October 2010.[37] Her nephew, Rev Roger Widdecombe, is an Anglican priest.[38]

She has never married nor had any children. In November 2007 on BBC Radio 4 she described how a journalist once produced a profile on her with the assumption that she had had at least "one sexual relationship", to which Widdecombe replied: "Be careful, that's the way you get sued". When interviewer Jenni Murray asked if she had ever had a sexual relationship, Widdecombe laughed "it's nobody else's business".[39]

Widdecombe has a fondness for cats and has a section of her website devoted to all the pet cats with which she has shared her life.[40] In a recent interview, Widdecombe talked about her appreciation of music despite describing herself as "pretty well tone-deaf".[41][42]

Religious views[edit]

Widdecombe is a practising Catholic. She converted in 1993 after leaving the Church of England.[43] Her reasons for leaving the latter were many, as she explained to reporters from the New Statesman:

I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England's compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn't care if something is unpopular.[44]

In 2010, Widdecombe turned down an offer to be Britain's next ambassador to the Holy See, being prevented from accepting by suffering a detached retina.[45] She was made a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI for services to politics and public life on 31 January 2013.[46]

Controversies[edit]

In 1990, following the assassination of the Conservative politician Ian Gow by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Eastbourne by-election for his seat in the House of Commons was won by the Liberal Democrat David Bellotti. Upon the announcement, Widdecombe told the voters that the IRA would be "toasting their success".[47]

In 1996, Widdecombe, as prisons minister, defended the Government's policy to shackle pregnant prisoners with handcuffs and chains when in hospital. Widdecombe told the Commons the restrictions were needed to prevent prisoners from escaping. "Some MPs may like to think that a pregnant woman would not or could not escape. Unfortunately this is not true. The fact is that hospitals are not secure places in which to keep prisoners, and since 1990, 20 women have escaped from hospitals"[48][49]

In 1997, during the Conservative leadership election of William Hague, Widdecombe spoke out against Michael Howard, under whom she had served when he was Home Secretary. She remarked that "there is something of the night about him". The remark was considered to be extremely damaging to Howard, who was frequently satirised as a vampire thereafter.[50] He came last in the poll. Howard went on to become party leader in 2003, however, and Widdecombe then stated, "I explained fully what my objections were in 1997 and I do not retract anything I said then. But this is 2005 and we have to look to the future and not the past."[51]

In 2001, when Michael Portillo was running for leader of the Conservative Party, Widdecombe described him and his allies as "backbiters". She went on to say that, should he be appointed leader, she would never give him her allegiance.[24]

Media work and appearances[edit]

Ann Widdecombe in 2006.

In 2002, she took part in the ITV programme Celebrity Fit Club. Also in 2002 she took part in a Louis Theroux television documentary, depicting her life, both in and out of politics.[52] In March 2004 she briefly became The Guardian newspaper's agony aunt, introduced with an Emma Brockes interview.[53] In 2005 BBC Two showed six episodes of The Widdecombe Project, an agony aunt television programme.[54] In 2005, she appeared in a new series of Celebrity Fit Club, but this time as a panel member dispensing wisdom and advice to the celebrities taking part.[54][55] Also in 2005, she presented the show Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue in which she acted as an agony aunt, dispensing no-nonsense advice to disputing families, couples, and others across the UK.[54] In 2005, she also appeared in a discussion programme on Five to discuss who had been England's greatest monarch since the Norman Conquest; her choice of monarch was Charles II.[56]

She was the guest host of news quiz Have I Got News for You twice, in 2006 and 2007. Following her second appearance, Widdecombe vowed she would never appear on the show again because of comments made by panellist Jimmy Carr. She wrote, "His idea of wit is a barrage of filth and the sort of humour most men grow out of in their teens.... [T]here's no amount of money for which I would go through those two recording hours again. At one stage I nearly walked out."[57] She did, however, stand by her appraisal of regular panellists Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, whom she has called "the fastest wits in showbusiness".[57]

In 2007, she awarded the University Challenge trophy to the winners.[58] In the same year, she was cast as herself in "The Sound of Drums", the 12th episode of the third series of the science-fiction drama Doctor Who supporting Mr Saxon, the alias of the Master.[59]

Since 2007, Widdecombe has fronted a television series called Ann Widdecombe Versus, on ITV1, in which she speaks to various people about things related to her as an MP, with an emphasis on confronting those responsible for problems she wished to tackle. On 15 August 2007 she talked about prostitution, the next week about benefits and the week after that about truancy. A fourth episode was screened on 18 September 2008 in which she travelled around London and Birmingham talking to girl gangs.[60]

In 2009, Widdecombe appeared with Archbishop John Onaiyekan in an "Intelligence Squared" debate in which they defended the motion that the Catholic Church was a force for good. Arguing against the motion were Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens.[61]

In October 2010, she appeared on BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing, partnered by Anton du Beke, winning the support of some viewers despite low marks from the judges.[62][63] After nine weeks of routines strongly flavoured by comedy the couple had received enough support in the public vote to stay in the contest. Widdecombe was eliminated from the competition on Sunday 5 December after the public vote had been combined with the judges' score; she was with Scott Maslen of EastEnders in the bottom two.

Widdecombe is currently filming a new quiz show with herself as questionmaster, for the Sky Atlantic channel, called Cleverdicks. The show is being shown in 30 one-hour episodes in an initial series, starting 2012. It features four contestants, usually high quality members of the UK national quiz circuit and ends with a money round for the winner of each show.[64]

On 23 April 2012 Widdecombe presented an hour-long documentary for BBC Radio 5 Live, Drunk Again: Ann Widdecombe Investigates, looking at how the British attitude to getting drunk has changed over the last few years.[65]

It was revealed in October 2012, that the year's Children in Need's appeal night will feature a Strictly Come Dancing special with former show favourites Russell Grant and Ann Widdecombe.[66]

On 4 November 2012, Ann presented guest hosted one episode of BBC's Songs of Praise programme about singleness.[67]

In October 2014 she appeared in the BBC series Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, partnered with expert Mark Stacey, where the pair beat the rival team of Craig Revel Horwood and Catherine Southon.[68]

Stage acting career[edit]

Following her retirement, Widdecombe made her stage debut, on 9 December 2011, at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford in the Christmas pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, alongside Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood.[69] In April 2012, she had a ten minute non-singing cameo part in Gaetano Donizetti's comic opera La Fille Du Regiment, playing Duchesse de Crackentorp.[70] Ann reprised her pantomime performance, again with Revel Horwood, at The Swan Theatre, High Wycombe in December 2012.[71]

Other interests[edit]

Her non-political accomplishments include being a popular novelist. Widdecombe also currently writes a weekly column for the Daily Express.[72]

In October 2006, she pledged to boycott British Airways for suspending a worker who refused to hide her cross. The matter was resolved when the company reversed the suspension.[73] In November 2006, she moved into the house of an Islington Labour Councillor to experience life on a council estate, her response to her experience being "Five years ago I made a speech in the House of Commons about the forgotten decents. I have spent the last week on estates in the Islington area finding out that they are still forgotten."[74]

In January 2011 Widdecombe was joint President of the North of England Education Conference in Blackpool. She shared the responsibility with a young person from the town.[75] She has also become a patron of The Grace Charity for M.E.[76]

Widdecombe revealed, in an April 2012 interview with Matt Chorley of The Independent, that she was writing her autobiography, which she described as ".. rude about all and sundry, but an amount of truth is always necessary."[30]

Widdecombe is a Patron of the charity Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land (SHADH) and in 2014 visited the SHADH Donkey Sanctuary in Palestine.[77]

Honours[edit]

Selected publications[edit]

Fiction[edit]

Non-fiction[edit]

  • 1999: Inspired and Outspoken: the collected speeches of Ann Widdecombe; edited by John Simmons, with a biographical preface by Nick Kochan. London: Politico's Publishing ISBN 1-902301-22-6
  • 2004: The Mass is a Mess, with Martin Kochanski. London: Catholic Writers' Guild

Further reading[edit]

  • 2000: Kochan, Nicholas Ann Widdecombe: right from the beginning. London: Politico's Publishing ISBN 1-902301-55-2

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ann Widdecombe set to stand down; BBC News, 7 October 2007
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  68. ^ [1]
  69. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-12626500 "Ann Widdecombe to star in panto in Dartford" at bbc.co.uk
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  75. ^ neec2011
  76. ^ "Welcome to the Grace Charity for M.E.". The Grace Charity for M.E. Archived from the original on 30 October 2010. Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  77. ^ Good News Shared Ann Widdecombe visits donkey charity

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Wells
Member of Parliament for Maidstone
19871997
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Maidstone & The Weald
19972010
Succeeded by
Helen Grant
Political offices
Preceded by
John Maples
Shadow Secretary of State for Health
1998–1999
Succeeded by
Liam Fox
Preceded by
Sir Norman Fowler
Shadow Home Secretary
1999–2001
Succeeded by
Oliver Letwin