She’s a 57-year-old spinster with teddy bears in her bedroom, her mother in the spare room, and a loathing for introspection. So why is Ann Widdecombe, politician-cum-novelist, about to try her hand as a television agony aunt? By Nigel Farndale
Be honest, if left alone with Ann Widdecombe’s fridge, could you resist a peek inside? You could?
What if you arrived early for a meeting with her and she asked you to wait in the kitchen and help yourself to coffee, adding, ‘the milk is in the fridge’? Exactly. With a clear conscience, then, I can reveal that Ann Noreen Widdecombe keeps a well-stocked fridge.
There is single cream and lettuce. There are tomatoes, eggs and cartons of New Covent Garden soup. So far so healthy; she must be sticking to ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club diet, the one that so publicly helped her lose three stone in 2002.
But what’s this? Eight chocolate-chip brioche rolls? A couple of bottles of champagne? A tub of tiramisu?
Ann Widdecombe, the 57-year-old MP, novelist and incurable attention-seeker, lives in a terraced house in Kennington, south-east London. It has a lilac painted front door.
Although her 93-year-old mother Rita has lived here since 1999 – perhaps the tiramisu is hers – it is very much a single woman’s house. The mirror in the bathroom is placed low over the sink (she is 5ft 11/2in and, as she says, ‘don’t forget the half’), there is a bowl of sanitary pads on top of the lavatory – for guests? – and there are cats wandering in and out.
On one wall of the sitting-room there is a samurai sword alongside a ceremonial naval sword (her father was a senior civil servant in the Admiralty and for a few years was stationed in Singapore, where Widdecombe lived between the ages of five and nine).
There is also a framed photograph of Widdy, as she calls herself on her website – ‘the Widdy Web’ – with the Pope (she converted to Rome in 1993, in protest over the Anglican church allowing the ordination of women).
As we sit down on pale green leather sofas, I notice the crucifix around her neck. It reminds me that for all her frivolous appearances on television – she has done Louis Theroux and Basil Brush, as well as Celebrity Fit Club, and in February will star in her own agony-aunt show for the BBC (entitled Oh No! It’s Ann Widdecombe) – she considers herself to be a high-minded moralist.
The political subjects associated with her tend to be either coloured by her Catholicism (anti-abortion, anti-gay rights), or her aversion to libertarianism and liberalism (she is pro the ban on fox hunting and pro the reintroduction of the death penalty). She also writes serious novels which sell well and meet with favourable reviews.
Her first, The Clematis Tree, was about a family struggling to cope with a handicapped child and her second, An Act of Treachery, was a love story set in occupied France. Her third, Father Figure, which is published later this month, has a topical theme: the rights of fathers over their children.
I ask her, then, whether she thinks her flirtations with lowbrow television undermine her seriousness as a politician and novelist.
‘I often hear politicians complain that they can’t get their message across because they are unrecognisable,’ she says in her fluty voice. ‘Well, I always score high in recognition polls. Always. And when people recognise me, what they say is not, “Oh, you used to be the Shadow Home Secretary”, but, “You’re that MP from Fit Club.”
‘If you appear on programmes such as that, the next time you are on television talking about politics, viewers pause to listen for three sentences instead of three words. But there are limits; I turned down Ruby Wax.’
As she talks she constantly blinks her pond-black eyes. It makes her seem vulnerable, which must be an illusion because, as she tells me, she has ‘no hang-ups’, never suffers nerves, never cries, and has no interest in analysing herself. Yet she doesn’t seem to mind analysing others.
Her new television programme, after all, sees her attempting to solve family crises, love quandaries and workplace spats and is, in turn, a spin-off from a bizarre, no-nonsense agony-aunt column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Buck Up’.
But, looking for fissures in her armour-plating, I wonder whether Widdecombe’s mad whoring after applause is simply a matter of her raising her political profile, as she claims. Could there have been a degree of masochism in her agreeing to humiliate herself on Celebrity Fit Club?
‘I did it because I wanted to lose weight,’ she says matter-of-factly. So why not do that in private? ‘Because I had a serious point to make which is that our obsession with physical perfection is out of all proportion.
‘I argued with the experts on that show most of the time about their “councils of perfection”. We marginalise the disabled, the disfigured, the odd, simply because we’ve got this image which now is entirely physical. I mean, the spiritual side of life is just being kicked to one side.
‘People are willing to undergo the most horrendous operations for the sake of increasing their bust size and I think, “Is there nothing more important in this world?”’
Perhaps there isn’t, I suggest, given that cosmetic change is ultimately intended to help us procreate.
‘It’s nothing to do with procreation at all! If you think of the women’s magazines, television, all the programmes about losing weight, having face-lifts, the multimillion-pound business that is the cosmetics industry, I mean, the whole thing’s gone mad!
‘Do you think the war generation thought for one second how straight their teeth were? I mean, it’s crazy!’ In terms of her appearance, there is little you can say about Ann Widdecombe that she hasn’t already said about herself. Her descriptions have included the words ‘short’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, ‘spinster’ and ‘crooked teeth’.
Presumably this was partly a defence mechanism: saying it before anyone else can. Also she may have reasoned that if she made no effort with her appearance she could justify being single, not only to herself but to the world. Yet she took it further, seemingly revelling in the mockery she received about her looks.
When she heard that her nickname around Westminster was Doris Karloff, for instance, she took to answering the phone by saying ‘Karloff here’. Now the black, pudding-bowl haircut has gone, along with the extra pounds. Was it belated vanity?
‘Now, look. I always said if ever there was a health reason for my losing weight, I would probably do it, but that I wasn’t interested in it for cosmetic reasons. And if I had been remotely interested in it for cosmetic reasons, I wouldn’t have gone all my political career with your profession being rude and spiteful and nasty – and just not minding. I would not have done it.
‘So you are wrong to say it was vanity. It was, very straight-forwardly, backache. As for the hair, I see no reason why someone shouldn’t go blonde if they want to try it out.
‘I had been keeping in my natural dark – dyeing the rest to match it – and the white was taking over. I mean, your lot in the press gallery of the Commons were talking about the zebra crossings in my hair as they looked down.’
Did she find that hurtful?
‘Oh, no. I didn’t. But I do occasionally find it irritating.’
Widdecombe did a documentary with Louis Theroux before she lost weight and went blonde. She seemed prickly and defensive in that. She seemed much more friendly and jolly when she did Fit Club some time afterwards. Was this because beginning to lose weight improved her self-esteem?
‘No. I was very wary of Louis Theroux. I mean we had a bust-up on day one because he asked questions which I’d said I wouldn’t answer.’
The questions were about her virginity. She doesn’t believe in sex before marriage and once threatened to sue a journalist who expressed doubts that she really was a virgin. I try a more tactful approach. How many times has she been in love?
‘In love? Er… once. In Oxford.’
She refers to her fellow student Colin Maltby, now a married banker. Their relationship was chaste and fizzled out after three years. So he was the one love of her life?
And does she ever look back and regret not having married him?
‘No, I don’t. I don’t think it would have been right for either of us. He is now very happily married. Successful man. Great family. I think both of us have been happy, as it turned out, not marrying each other.
‘Um, if you’re asking me in the broader sense, do I wish I’d married, the answer is no. It was never a conscious decision not to marry. A lot of people say, “Oh, you put politics first,” well, tosh, I didn’t.
‘It was chance, because Mr Right didn’t turn up. It was also choice because he was never a big enough priority to go out looking for.’
Was it partly that she had a low sex drive?
‘I don’t know, I’ve never bothered. You know, I’m very ha… I take myself as I am. If I was sitting here depressed that I hadn’t married, I might be asking myself those questions, or if I was sitting here with a failed marriage behind me, I might be asking myself those questions…’
Her mother calls from upstairs.
‘Oh, hang on. Yup! I’m down here! Hello!’
She disappears and returns a few minutes later.
‘Right, where were we?’ I ask about her mother. ‘I love having her here and I very much hope that I outlive her, because I wouldn’t like her to have to cope with losing me.’
It’s a strange comment, but I think I know what she means. Does she ever think about what it will be like to go back to living on her own?
‘No, but I mean, my Mum’s only lived with me since ’99, after Dad died.’
When she lived on her own and got home at night, did she ever wish someone was there? A companion?
‘It is that moment when I’m always grateful to be solo. It’s when I come in, after a dreadful day in politics, shut the doors, and there are no demands at all. I mean, there might be a cat crying for food [Widdecombe owns two], but that’s it.’
So she prefers her own company?
‘I think that the brute truth is that I’ve enjoyed being alone. I love my own company. I’m the best company I know. I mean, I can make myself laugh uproariously.’
Not everyone in Widdecombe’s party finds her as funny as she claims to find herself. When I asked one senior Tory what he thought of her he said she was a ‘freak show’, a ‘dinosaur’, and ‘the political equivalent of the Taliban’.
Part of the ill feeling must stem from the unhelpful ‘something of the night’ comment she made about Michael Howard in May 1997. It undermined the future leader badly. As she will be fighting a Tory seat in a few months’ time, does she now feel any regret or guilt about what she said?
‘None at all. None at all. None at all.’
So she still thinks it?
‘I don’t take back a single word I said in 1997, including the famous phrase, but, that was 1997, and we are now in 2005.’
If she doesn’t retract it, it means she still believes it.
‘I’m not going to re-rehearse it, either. I’ve moved on, he’s moved on, the world has moved on and I’m living in 2005.’
Ann Widdecombe is a stranger to self-doubt. She has the masculine traits of literal mindedness, remorselessness and a bluff refusal to concede weakness. When I ask her about these traits she says, ‘No, they are not masculine traits they are human traits.’
From where does her political certainty come? The Bible?
‘I think the answer to that is, yes, to some extent, obviously. But if you take the pro-life issue, most people think I’m pro-life because I’m a Catholic. Actually, I’m probably a Catholic because I was pro-life.’
She goes to confession?
And she has vices to confess?
‘I think everybody does. I think people have… quick tempers, um… people have resentments.’
What does she think happens to people who have sex before marriage?
‘What do you mean?’
Well, do they go to hell?
‘We don’t know who goes to hell. But it’s not to do with totting up every single thing you’ve done and when you cross a certain line you’re dispatched off to the infernal region. I mean, come on! I have lots of friends who have done things I disapprove of.
‘But I am not their judge. They know I disapprove and the interesting thing is they remain my friends.’
Although she is reluctant to analyse herself, she does concede that her doggedness and ambition probably come from her father; while her brother, Malcolm, a vicar who is ten years older than her, is more like her mother – more gentle and placid.
‘But I don’t analyse things in all this great depth. I mean, I know it’s very fashionable to look into every last possible motivation, and to think therapy is the answer to everything, but as far as I am concerned there were things I wanted to do, and I’ve managed to do most of them.’
There is something slightly otherworldly about Ann Widdecombe. She didn’t own a television until her mother moved in five years ago. Her speech is peppered with oddly outdated words such as ‘golly’, ‘darn’ and ‘bunkum’. And I notice the teddy bears in the room. Are they hers?
‘No, they’re mother’s. That’s mother’s corner there. We’ve even got a camel that sings.’
She picks up a fluffy camel and it starts singing an Arabic song.
‘Friends bring them. Those two were gifts from friends. That one I got at some exhibition. They get eaten by the cats and discarded and others come.’
The camel continues its song.
‘Sorry, he does shut up in the end.’
She stares at it in her hand.
‘I do have a fair collection of bears.’
Given her suspicion of therapy and analysis, presumably she doesn’t see anything regressive about an adult collecting teddy bears?
‘I don’t consciously collect bears. People give me bears, you know, and I’ve got bears – I mean, I’ve got bear plates, I find that very endearing. Most people find it quite yucky, and I say, “Doesn’t matter, you don’t have to look at it.” ‘
‘You know, the whole world may laugh at my bear plates, but if I like them I’ll have them because it’s nothing to do with anybody else, and it does nobody an iota of harm that I have bear plates up there. If I want them there, I’ll have ’em there.’