Ann Widdecombe: ‘I’m a feminist in the 1970s sense. Now it’s a big whinge’

The former Conservative minister left politics in 2010, but has not lost her merciless directness. She talks about being single, Cameron’s ‘obsession’ with image and trying to get Patsy Kensit to Mass

At 8am in a Belfast hotel, Ann Widdecombe, who the night before was participating in the Belfast Book Festival, is already looking bright and breezy. She has shoulder-length silver hair and a red top. She tries to get me to order breakfast but I've already eaten and just want coffee.

“He’s a very serious young man who wants to work through breakfast,” she explains to the waitress.

Widdecombe is a former Conservative Party minister, long associated with the right wing of that party. She is pro-blasphemy laws and pro-capital punishment and anti-abortion, equal marriage, big government and, less predictably, hunting.

In 1993 she converted to Catholicism after the Anglican Church introduced women priests. Nowadays, many know her as a good-humoured, incompetent dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, a sporadic panto performer, and, for seven nights in 2012, an opera star in La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House ("Mortifyingly inept," declared the Daily Telegraph).


She is a familiar face. We are interrupted a couple of times over breakfast by well-wishers. One is the journalist Mary Kenny, with whom Widdecombe dined the previous evening.

“I hope you’re being very nice to this wonderful lady,” she says.

Widdecombe has previously been to Belfast as a politician and as a star of the Strictly Come Dancing tour. She also made a Channel 4 documentary about the Reformation, for which she visited an Orange march, which she enjoyed, and interviewed her parliamentary friend Ian Paisley. Unmoved by her Catholicism, he was happy to lambast the pope as "the son of perdition and the Antichrist".

Political impulse

She got into politics “to fight socialism. You say that to an 18-year-old today and they look at you like you’re bananas. The world was very sharply divided into two great conflicting political ideologies, capitalism and communism. And in western democracies it was between capitalism and socialism, and everybody knew which side they were on.”

She embedded herself in the Oxford Union debating society in the 1960s, where she "certainly wasn't a hippy. But I was a night bird, staying up until two in the morning, talking about politics, drinking just coffee."

She didnt see gender as a hindrance. That era's female parliamentarians – she mentions Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle, Edwina Curry and Margaret Thatcher – "just got on with it", she says.

But she could see the importance of feminism. “An employer could still advertise a job with two different rates, one for men and one for women. It was lawful to be told that they were only renting a flat to men or married couples. You could be denied a mortgage or asked for your husband’s signature on a HP form. Of course I saw a need for feminism. And I’m still a feminist in the 1970s sense that we need equality of opportunity. But frankly we’ve got it. And we haven’t a clue how to deal with it.”

She characterises contemporary feminism as “a big whinge”. She recalls one of what she calls “Blair’s babes” complaining to her about her treatment in parliament. “She assumed it was because she was a woman. In fact, it was because she was useless and easy to rough up.”

She is mercilessly direct. In the 1990s she nobbled her Tory colleague Michael Howard with the observation that there was "something of the night about him". She is proud of this turn of phrase even now. "I didn't expect it to become part of the lexicon," she chuckles.

Impertinent questions

Her single status has long been a source of impertinent questions. "Everybody else makes a damned issue of it but it's not an issue," she says. "It was never a conscious choice. When I broke up with my first boyfriend [Colin Maltby, whom she met at Oxford], I assumed I would still marry somebody, but Mr Right never came along and it was never a big enough priority to go out looking for him.

“The world doesn’t seem to understand that there really are people who are content to live alone and who actively prefer living alone. I got to a point where contentment led to active preference.”

When she gets home at night, she says, she shuts her door and says: “Thank God. Alone at last.” When her mother lived with her, towards the end of her life, she found it disconcerting to have someone around to interrupt her thoughts. “I remember asking someone with five kids, ‘Do you ever get to the end of a thought?’ and he said ‘No’.”

She laughs. Caring for her mother was part of the reason she withdrew from the Tory front bench in 2001. Prior to this there were mutterings she might even run for the leadership, but she says the party was running away from her a bit, particularly on social issues.

She dislikes David Cameron’s “obsession” with image and strongly disagrees with his stance on equal marriage. Have her views on gay issues changed at all?

“Everybody says to me that you must have met lots of gays in pantomime, and I say, ‘Hang on, do you think there are no gays at Westminster? That I never had gay friends?’ It doesn’t alter my view that marriage is between one man and one woman, and interestingly, a lot of gay people think the same.”

I bring this issue up again after she mentions her friendship with Strictly star Craig Revel Horwood. "There you go again," she says. "I don't know why people think that just because I have gay friends I should believe in gay marriage."

In 2010 she left politics for good. "I had come to prefer Countdown to Question Time," she says. Her outgoing speech was about how the state had failed what she described as "the forgotten decent", hard-working people in sink estates who fearfully "shut their door every evening at six; those individuals on those council estates trying to live normal unmolested lives." She observes that "you and I don't know that we're born".

That sounds almost socialist, I say. “No. It’s not,” she says firmly. “It’s the exact opposite.”

She was offered the ambassadorship at the Vatican, but suffered a detached retina and decided to stay put. "I'm sure the Italians have wonderful hospitals, but they tend to speak Italian."

Dabbled in television

She did not anticipate a dancing career. She had dabbled in television, fronting documentaries and appearing on Have I Got News for You, Fit Club and When Louis Met Ann Widdecombe (during which Louis Theroux angered her by "tricking" her mother into an interview, but now "it's one of the few things I've got on film of my mother").

She had turned Strictly down five times. "It didn't feel appropriate while I was in parliament." But in 2010 she said yes.

Why? Did she think she would be good at dancing? She guffaws. “I’m tone-deaf and I can’t actually hear music,” she says. “I decided I’d be good at making people laugh, and I succeeded.”

Her popularity on the show led to her joining the Strictly Come Dancing live tour, and she enjoyed hanging out with her unlikely new chums.

"Patsy Kensit wanted to come to Mass with me but she never ever seemed to be able to get there. Then I realised what was happening. When we'd arrived in these towns, I'd meet the others and we'd all have a drink, and then I would go to bed and assume they were doing the same, but they'd actually go out to the clubs and have a whale of a time. They would come back around 4am and then, God bless us, the next day they'd carry out the most intricate manoeuvres, while I, with eight hours' sleep, would blunder with every step."

Since then she has presented a quiz show (Cleverdicks on Sky), fronted documentaries, written books (including her autobiography, Strictly Ann, and a soon-to-be-published detective novel set in a dance show) and appeared in operas and pantos.

“It’s all a relief after politics,” she says. “When I go into pantomime and all I have to do is make kids laugh twice a day, everybody says, ‘Oh, it must be terribly hard work’. But the release from responsibility is wonderful.

"I mean, what could I do on Strictly? I could kick Anton's shins, but nothing more serious than that. If I fell in a heap nobody suffered. It's not like voting for a war motion. Nobody suffers."


Death Row meal? "Roast lamb, mint sauce, redcurrant jelly and roast potatoes."

Biggest regret? "I don't really have one. Not a big one. Everyone thinks they can tweak this or tweak that."

Last time you cried? "Probably when I went out with the Leprosy Mission to Ethiopia in December. You talk about inequality? Just go and have a look. It's why I have no patience with people who say we shouldn't give overseas aid."

Favourite book? "All Quiet on the Western Front because it shows ordinary human beings who, if they'd been left alone, would have been friends with their enemies."

Favourite prime minister? "Churchill."

Most embarrassing moment? "I did Five Minutes to a Fortune, a quiz show, and they asked me to name five French presidents and all I could think of were German chancellors."

The person you'd like to apologise to? "I suppose my mother. I could probably have given her even more time if I'd given up politics earlier. In her last two to three years I wish I'd been there full time."