I sat down with former Conservative Member of Parliament Ann Widdecombe to discuss her life in politics and, more recently, entertainment.
Ann chose to make Dartmoor her home following her retirement from frontline politics, and now lives in a wonderful home in Haytor (appropriately called Widdecombe’s Rest) overlooking the picturesque beauty of the Moor. In my short time as a journalist, this was the most nervous I had been before an interview. Ann has always had a reputation of being a charismatic but forthright person who has rarely suffered fools.
The nerves were quickly dashed, however, when she spotted the Parker pen I was using to make notes, stating how she also had one from when she was young. When I explained that I got it as a gift from my Dad when I completed my GCSEs, she explained how she got hers in the same way: “We’ve bonded already!”
Naturally, I began by asking why she chose to retire to Dartmoor. She had family in the Southwest and, when the family was stationed in the UK for her dad’s job, they took advantage of holidaying in the Highlands or on Dartmoor.
“I always said that I was going to retire to Dartmoor. I had a slight wobble towards the Northwest Highlands. Unfortunately, I don’t like midges and I do like swimming outdoors. So the Northwest Highlands were never going to be a choice.”
Ann’s childhood was slightly unusual in that, because of her father’s work, she spent a lot of time moving from place to place, even spending a short time at the Royal Naval School in Singapore.
In one particular anecdote, Ann commented on an issue that seems incredibly far removed from our millennial generation: “I was never allowed to holiday behind the Iron Curtain because my father was concerned with Polaris.
‘The Russians had a habit of grabbing businessmen and visitors and saying they were spies. If you were anybody anonymous, it didn’t matter at all, but if they thought there was any connection – and they knew – they were everywhere.”
Ann’s love of politics began when she was 13 or 14, while at boarding school in Bath: “I was very interested in politics but for all the wrong reasons. Because we were growing up in the immediate post-war era, what I think later generations don’t appreciate is that everything was dominated by the war. Of course, the dominating figure of the war was Winston Churchill. So I thought that all politicians were like Winston Churchill. Now I would say I wish!
‘I thought that it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend your life making stirring speeches and saving the world. By the time I was 20, I had a much more realistic appreciation of what politics was actually about.”
Ann Widdecombe and the Conservative Party are inextricably linked. Naively I asked if she chose the Party for a reason: “Oh yes! I didn’t just stick a pin in it! When I growing up it was the height of the Cold War. As a child, I knew nothing but the Cold War. The world was split into two conflicting ideologies – it was communism vs capitalism. There was real contest for the future of the globe based on those two.
‘It was mirrored in Britain with Capitalism vs Socialism. Everybody knew which side you were on. Everybody. You never heard people say in those days that it “doesn’t make any difference”, because everyone knew it did.Wanting to fight socialism was one of the reasons I went into Parliament.”
Ann would go on to Oxford University and become Secretary and Treasurer of the Oxford Union. 1970 was the first General Election that she would be actively involved in. While at
Oxford, she did a lot of canvassing for the Conservative Party.
Like most people around the country, it was expected that Labour, under Harold Wilson, would win comfortably against Ted Heath’s Tory party: “Everybody in the country expected Labour to win. Everybody. All the opinion polls said Labour, Labour, Labour. But it was all very exciting because we won!”
By 1974, she was a Personal Assistant to Michael Ancram and in 1979, she was selected as the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Burnley. She commented that, between those two milestones in her life, the 70s were dominated by various miners’ strikes, which would usher in the three day working week. She described how, when working for Unilever, she was having to inspect warehouses by torchlight.
By the time she contested the 1979 election, it was the Winter of Discontent: “The doctors were on strike. The grave diggers were on strike so you couldn’t get buried. Bin men were on strike so London was piled up with stinking rubbish. I have always said that if I wasn’t a Conservative, the 70s would have made me a Conservative.”
She managed to halve the Labour majority in Burnley before being selected to contest Plymouth Devonport against David Owen in 1983. “It was the first election with David Owen as the Leader of the [Social Democratic Party]. No one was sure if it would stay loyal to David, or vote Labour, which is what it had always done, or whether I would come through the middle when the vote split.”
Ann commented how the Plymouth election was very much overshadowed by local issues that spun off from the national ones, such as concerns surrounding the dockyard, while Burnley was very much about the national picture.
“Halving the majority at the Burnley election was very much the combined effort of Mrs Thatcher and myself.”
“What a deadly combination”, my editor said. How true that is.
In 1987, the long road to becoming a Member of Parliament ended, when she was selected to contest the seat of Maidstone in Kent.
“I got into parliament with a raised majority. I knew that, unless I really blew it, I had a seat for life. It really is wonderful to go in with a seat that had been Conservative since the previous century.
‘I remember going into the Chamber [of the House of Commons] and sat on the green leather, because I always said that I believe I’m going to get there when I feel the green leather beneath me. While I was there bouncing up and down on the green leather, another new Kent MP came in, and he said, “Oh are you having a bounce on the green leather?” I said I was just convincing myself it was true – so he sat down and we had a bounce on the green leather!”
By this time, Margaret Thatcher and her government had just been returned to power for a third term. When asked what she remembers of
Thatcher, she commented that she was very remote.
“By the time I got there, I was a very new backbencher and she was Prime Minister, by that time of eight years standing with three more to go. Therefore, she was quite remote. John Major was never remote. He was a Prime Minister who socialised a lot. He came into the dining rooms, he came into the tea rooms. Thatcher never did. If she came into the dining room, it was like a state visit!”
Following controversy over her attitude to the European Union, and the introduction of the Community Charge (Poll Tax), various ministers resigned from government and Thatcher would eventually resign as Prime Minister. A Tory leadership election ensued.
At this point, Ann made an interesting comment about the all-consuming nature of the political world in which she now found herself.
“I was supporting Douglas Hurd at the time, but I didn’t really care if John Major won. All I remember about that election is at the end of it, when Major won, is coming out of the Hurd campaign office and thinking “It’s nearly Christmas.” I hadn’t done anything about Christmas because all we’d been immersed in was this leadership election and suddenly, it was like coming out from some sort of dark, underground place into the daylight and realising there was Christmas coming.”
Ann would go on to be made a Minister under Major, starting at Social Security before becoming the Pensions Minister. She would eventually be moved to Employment. In true Ann Widdecombe style: “It wasn’t an exacting ministry.”
In 1992, Ann would fight her fourth Parliamentary election: “We expected to lose in ’92. We had three terms. We were asking for a fourth, which was unheard of. We were very unpopular. We should have lost in ‘92. And we expected to lose in ’92. I took all my pot plants home from the Ministry!
‘I wish we lost in retrospect. If so, Labour would have had to take the nation through the [Exchange Rate Mechanism], we would have probably been back in for another 13 or 18 years.
At the time though, we were delighted to have won in ’92. Even very senior and experienced members of parliament were saying “Can Labour ever win now?”
‘A gentleman called Tony Blair was making exactly that calculation. That the nation would go for anybody who wasn’t a Tory but who didn’t offer a socialist agenda…We all knew we were going to lose in ’97.”
By the end of the 1997 election, in which Tony Blair romped to a landslide victory and Tory MPs were being defeated in their droves, Ann’s biggest disappointment was that her majority had been cut. “I had a perfectly healthy majority, but it was the lowest I ever had. But when I went into my count, the first thing I was told, though it was actually false, “[John] Gummer has just gone out”, and I thought that if we’ve lost Suffolk Coastal, we’ve lost everything. Throughout the night, people were going down like ninepins…It was a complete disaster. When I heard that I had a 9000 majority, I thought that it wasn’t much cop. Turned out to be one of the 10 highest Tory majorities in the country.”
It was shortly after this election that she made her infamous ‘Something of the Night’ comments about Michael Howard while he was gearing up for the Tory Leadership race. Ann had been a minister in the Home Office under him.
“[At the ’97 election] Had I lost, or had Michael lost, I would never have made the speech. If he had lost and I said it, it would have been seen as kicking a man when he was down. Had I lost and said it, it would have been seen as sour grapes.
“The news came in that we held Folkestone [Michael’s constituency], and I had a decision to make about whether I was going to tell people what I really thought. Michael Prescott from the Sunday Times got wind that I was about to denounce Michael Howard and I told him I did have issues. It was the first time I used the phrase to people outside of my immediate circle ‘Something of the Night’.
‘Well, they didn’t realise what they had got. The headline was that I had called Michael Howard dangerous. But in the quotes underneath it had said I used the phrase ‘Something of the Night’. Well, the next day, EVERY other newspaper had latched onto it. The Sunday Times didn’t and they were the first people to have it!”
Having served the constituents of Maidstone for 23 years, been involved in politics since 1970, and served as a Minister and Shadow Cabinet minister, Ann’s choice for her greatest achievement is not what you’d expect: “People always expect me to say something that happened on the front bench. But my favourite moment was getting a constituent out of prison in Morocco.”
The constituent in question was accused of drug smuggling. He was a truck driver that was sent out to pick up a lorry after a fellow employee had to rush back to Ireland on emergency family business. He had picked it up from a public lorry park and was under observation the whole time. When he crossed the weigh bridge, the weight was different from the manifest. The lorry was searched and the authorities found a million pounds worth of drugs.
To Ann, though, it was quite obvious the other guy had done it and not her constituent.
“I went out to Morocco and I saw the King’s Councillor, the Interior Minister and anybody else I thought could help. And I did indeed get him released.
‘John [Major] said, “You must make it clear you are not acting for the government, you’re acting solely as a constituency MP. That was all very well but the Moroccans didn’t understand that…As far as they understood they were talking to the British government, which was wonderful for me as I got the result and John was okay with it because nothing went wrong.”
After deciding to retire from parliamentary life in 2010, one door closed and another opened. Ann’s work in the entertainment industry since leaving Westminster has made her a household name.
But it all began, in her words, “accidently”.
“I had been doing a bit of television but it had always been documentaries and all that serious stuff. The only unserious stuff I had done was Have I Got News For You.
‘I had turned down Strictly [Come Dancing] for donkey’s years. Every year between 2004 and 2009 they came to me and I just said no.
Then in 2009 I thought I’m retiring, why shouldn’t I? So I told them I would do it next year.”
‘I thought it doesn’t matter if I make a fool of myself, because I’m no longer an MP. I thought I’d only last 3 weeks!”
Ann would end up getting to the 9th week of the competition. She would go on to do pantomime after the Strictly tour, and in the audience of one of the shows was one of the casting staff from the Royal Opera House who would cast her in a spoken role in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment.
“I would never in 20 million years have predicted [it]. I was on stage at the Royal Opera House – I’m still getting over it. Then I did a load of reality things and it just took off!”
Ann stated that she had turned down Big Brother solidly for years. But in 2018, the show’s producers said that, on the 100th year since women’s suffrage, it was going to be a lot more serious and there would be some proper debates: “They were even trying to call it Big Sister!
‘So I agreed. I just thought, if I don’t walk out, and apparently the whole production team thought I was going to, I’m going to be voted out anyway. There is no way my views were going to go down with the populous. So I made very sure those views were heard!”
Ann was on the show with Rachel Johnson, the journalist and sister of Boris Johnson and remembers how her an Amanda Barrie were laughing at Boris’ hair.
“Amanda [Barrie] and I were laughing about Boris’ hair. And Rachel said “Well, what’s wrong with his hair?” and we said “Oh come on!” It was his sister and she hadn’t noticed his weird hair!” Despite her self-confessed controversial views, she would go on to be runner-up on the show, losing out to winner Courtney Act.
In her peaceful retreat, in the hills of Dartmoor, it couldn’t feel further removed from the Palace of Westminster or the Strictly ballroom.
“The glorious thing about being retired is you just sit and wait for the telephone to ring. If it doesn’t ring, you’re retired. And if it does ring, as it did with Big Brother, you just decide if you want to do it or not. I just wait for the telephone to ring, and if it doesn’t – well, I’m retired!”