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Ann Widdecombe

Ann Noreen Widdecombe (born 4 October 1947) is a British Conservative Party politician and, more recently, television presenter and novelist. She is the Member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald and a Privy Counsellor. She is a prominent member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and an outspoken supporter of traditional family values.

Early life

Born in Bath, Somerset, Widdecombe is the daughter of a Ministry of Defence Civil Servant. She attended the Royal Navy School, Singapore, and a Convent School in Bath. 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.

Councillor

From 1976 to 1978, Widdecombe was a Runnymede District Councillor. She contested the seat of Burnley in the 1979 general election and then Plymouth Devonport in the 1983 general election against David Owen.

Member of Parliament

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).

Political views

Widdecombe is a committed Christian who has made it clear that her views on some issues reflect this - for instance, she would refuse to be health secretary as long as this involved overseeing abortions. Along with John Gummer MP, she changed denomination from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church following the decision that women could become priests. She called for a zero tolerance policy of prosecution - albeit with only £100 fines as the punishment - for users of cannabis in her speech at the 2000 Conservative conference, which was well-received by rank-and-file Conservative delegates. However, she alleges that someone connected with Francis Maude promptly contacted journalists to alert them that fellow Conservative cabinet members were prepared to come out and indicate "something of ambivalence" towards their own past experiences with this drug.

On the 2007 ITV programme, An Exploration of Faith, Widdecombe again emphasised her Catholic faith, citing her ardent belief in its doctrines, such as transubstantiation, and also condemning secularism as the enemy of modern society.

In 2003, together with fellow Roman Catholic MP Edward Leigh, 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 14 Parliamentary votes considered by the Public Whip website to concern equal rights for homosexuals, Widdecombe has taken the opposing position in 12 cases, not being present at the other two votes.

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

In government

Widdecombe joined John Major's government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1990. In 1993 she became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Employment being promoted to Minister of State the following year. In 1995 she became Minister of State at the Home Office and Minister in Charge of Prisons, and in that role visited every single prison in Britain.

Shadow Cabinet

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

Leadership contest and backbenches

During the 2001 Conservative leadership election, she could not find sufficient Conservative MPs to support her as a leadership candidate. 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 an Iain Duncan Smith shadow cabinet (although she indicated 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 have a proven track record like the other candidates for leadership, and she has been a leading figure in parliamentary opposition to his A List policy which she has said is "an insult to women".

In an interview with Metro in September 2006 she stated that if the parliament was of a normal length it was likely she would go at the next General Election. She confirmed her intention to stand down to The Observer's Pendennis diary in September 2007.

At the October 2006 Conservative Conference, she was Chief Dragon in a political version of 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.

Announced retirement

In October 2007, she announced that she would stand down from parliament at the next general election after Prime Minister Gordon Brown quashed speculation of an Autumn 2007 general election.

Personal life and family

Widdecombe currently lives in London. Until very recently, she had a constituency home in the picturesque village of Sutton Valence Kent., which she sold upon deciding to retire at the next general election . She shared her home in London with her widowed mother, Rita Widdecombe, until Rita's death from natural causes, on 1 May 2007, aged 95. Ann has a brother, Malcolm, who is a clergyman.

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. She has never confirmed nor denied being a virgin, simply stating: "I don't regard it as anybody else's business.

Controversies

Widdecombe has occasionally stirred up controversy with her words and policies.

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".

In 1997, during the Conservative leadership election that picked William Hague, Widdecombe spoke out against Michael Howard, under whom she had served when he was Home Secretary. She famously remarked "there is something of the night about him". It was considered to be extremely damaging, and Howard was frequently portrayed as a vampire in satire from that time on, and came last in the poll. However, he went on to become party leader in 2003, and Ann Widdecombe said "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.

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.

Work outside Parliament

Her non-political accomplishments include being a popular novelist. In 2002, she took part in the ITV programme Celebrity Fit Club. In March 2004 she briefly became the The Guardian newspaper's agony aunt, introduced with an Emma Brockes interview. In 2005 BBC Two showed six episodes of The Widdecombe Project, an agony aunt television programme. 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. Also in 2005, she presented a 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. She was also a guest host of news quiz Have I Got News for You in 2006, and hosted the programme again in November 2007, (she and Kirsty Young are the only two women to have hosted the show more than once) when she disclosed she owned a cat named "Arbuthnot". Widdecombe vowed she would never appear on Have I Got News For You again after comments made by panellist Jimmy Carr during her second appearance on the programme. 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." She did, however, stand by her appraisal of regular panellists Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, whom she has called "the fastest wits in showbusiness".

In 2006, she launched a boycott against British Airways for suspending a worker who refused to hide her cross which ended when British Airways reversed their suspension. 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".

She awarded the 2007 University Challenge trophy. 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.

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 Ann travelled around London and Birmingham talking to girl gangs. On 25 September 2008, she investigated the diet and weight-loss industry, celebrity magazines and cosmetic surgery. That episode also dealt with people's attitudes to body shape, along with people's experiences of being on diets, and having regained the fat they had lost after having achieved weight loss.

Ann Widdecombe has made appearances on television and radio, and presented the Lent Talks on BBC Radio 4 on 12 March 2008. In 2005, she appeared in a discussion programme on Five to discuss who England's greatest monarch since the Norman Conquest had been - her choice of monarch was Charles II.

She appeared in a television advert for the Rana Pasta Company. The advertisement topped a list of Worst Celebrity Ads compiled by Campaign Magazine.

Bibliography

Fiction

  • The Clematis Tree by Ann Widdecombe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000) ISBN 0-297-64572-2
  • An Act of Treachery by Ann Widdecombe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002) ISBN 0-297-64573-0
  • Father Figure by Ann Widdecombe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005) ISBN 0-297-82962-9
  • An Act of Peace by Ann Widdecombe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005) ISBN 0-297-82958-0

Non-fiction

  • Inspired and Outspoken: The Collected Speeches of Ann Widdecombe edited by John Simmons (Politico's Publishing, 1999) ISBN 1-902301-22-6
  • Ann Widdecombe: Right from the Beginning by Nicholas Kochan (Politico's Publishing, 2000) ISBN 1-902301-55-2

References

External links

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