I first met Ann Widdecombe at Politico’s, the bookshop in Westminster I used to own, in April 1997. She came in and bought ten copies of Derek Lewis’s account of his time as director of HM Prison Service. She plonked them on the counter, I looked her squarely in the eye and raised an eyebrow. After all, she was still prisons minister and this was an account of his sacking by her boss, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard. She smiled enigmatically. We didn’t need to exchange a word. Off she went, and I kept it to myself, much as though I could have earned some pocket money by telling a diary columnist. She became a regular visitor to the shop and was particularly taken by the DORIS KARLOFF 4 TORY LEADER badges we produced at the start of the Tory leadership campaign which followed the 2001 election. Indeed, she bought a job lot. But it was a leadership campaign that she didn’t join.
By that time I had published a book of her speeches and was about to embark on a theatre tour with her as the host of ‘AN AUDIENCE WITH ANN WIDDECOMBE’. I wanted to called it a ‘NIGHT WITH ANN WIDDECOMBE’, but it was too saucy for her. I still think I was right. In the end we did about 100 of these evenings, which we both found hugely enjoyable. They produced some hilarious moments, including one in Chelmsford when a militantly gay member of the audience got up and walked out shouting at us to eff off because we were bigots. The only time I saw her stumped was when a member of the audience asked: “Miss Widdecombe, can you please explain why any member of the female sex would ever want to have an affair with John Prescott?” She gulped like a goldfish.
As often as not, I’d drive us both to whichever far flung theatre we were performing at. She hated my driving – especially post performance when we’d stop off at a petrol station and I’d then drive up the M4 drinking a can of lilt, with a sandwich in one hand, a packet of crisps between my legs and the steering wheel occasionally in the other hand. In the end I did it to get the volcanic reaction and I was seldom disappointed.
Those drives down the motorway were often interrupted by me looking to my left and seeing the Widdecombe mouth wide open and a gentle snore emanating from it. On the rare occasions she was awake (just my little joke) we gossiped and sometimes bared our souls to each other. I remember driving to Malvern one night and we talked about the gay adoption debate – this must have been in late 2002 or 2003. Iain Duncan Smith had imposed a three line whip on it and I was fulminating about what a ridiculous decision that had been, and that it should have been a free vote. If memory serves me correctly she agreed, although you can imagine that’s where the agreement ended.
At one point I remember saying: “I don’t know why I am talking about this seeing as I have never, ever wanted children.” Ann was very shocked by this and said I couldn’t be serious. Just as she didn’t believe I never wanted children, I have never quite believed her protestations that she is quite happy being single and childless. She addresses this issue in the book and it is clear, to me at any rate, that family is, and has been, the most important thing in her life. The way she looked after her mother after her father died in 2007, was a lesson to many. Ann jokes that she relishes the single lifestyle. When she gets home she can kick off her shoes, pour herself a whisky and watch whatever she likes on TV without caring a jot about demands likely to made on her by a husband may well resonate with those who do have those demands made on them, but even so, I still reckon the lady doth protest too much. I can think of few things which would give her friends more happiness than if she met someone at this stage in her life and fell head over heels. It would be a brave man who took her on, but one thing I have learnt is that there is someone out there for everyone. They just have to find each other. If she is reading this I can already hear her saying ‘yuck’ or ‘stuff and nonsense’.
Christopher Howse wrote a disgusting review of STRICTLY ANN for the Telegraph in which he reckoned the whole book was about a failed life. He has a very warped view of what constitutes success. That’s the trouble with Widdecombe book reviews. They tend to be dominated by the critic’s pre-existing opinion of Ann, rather than concentrate on the book’s literary merits. Her novel AN ACT OF TREACHERY, a story of love in second world war Paris, was a brilliant tale, expertly researched and told. But most reviews concentrated on the absence of sex in it. Actually, there is a bit, on p158. But, don’t let on to Ann.
The thing is, Ann can write. And she can tell a story. This is not a book about a failed life. It is a book about a woman of definite opinions, who made her way in the world with little help from anyone and became one of the best known women in the country. She neared the peak of the political mountain, stuck to her guns, is seen as the most honest politician in the country and respected even by her foes. She has made some excellent (but also, it has to be said, one or two truly terrible) TV programmes, is a best-selling author and one of the best orators of her generation. You know, most people would settle for that as a record of accomplishment. Clearly not Christopher Howse, but you can’t win ‘em all.
This is a very detailed book, sometimes a little too detailed for the average reader, and in setting out to write her memoirs, Ann must have wondered which audience she was writing for – a political audience or her celebrity fans. If anything she has gone for the former, but she sometimes has to explain things to her second audience which leaves the political audience feeling a little irritated. I remember discussing the possibility of her writing her memoirs with her some time ago and she seemed adamant she wouldn’t do it. “I don’t want a friendless old age,” was her get out clause. “Well, I said, you should do it if only to put it on the record for posterity, or do you want Michael Howard to do that for you?”
It is often said that autobiography is a work of fiction about yourself. Not this one. Yes, it is at times a little self-serving, but I have never read an autobiography that isn’t. When reading back her speech proposing herself for the Speakership she writes:
“Re-Reading that speech again for the purposes of this book, I could not fault it.”
Maybe not, but if I had been her editor, that sentence wouldn’t have made the final cut. But that is to carp. All the political episodes she writes about that I have first-hand knowledge of are described with total honesty and candour. She is not afraid to admit her own failings or misjudgements, and she is also not afraid to dole out criticism to fellow MPs where they merit it – and even sometimes when they possibly don’t. This is not a bitchy book, but it’s not without its knifings. Michael Howard cops much of Ann’s ire, although she is not afraid to praise him at times too. But perhaps my favourite comment in the whole book is when she says she would happily fight in the trenches alongside Michael Howard…
“knowing that he would never be cowardly in the face of the enemy or desert his fellow soldiers. The difficulty is that if the battle went wrong he would immediately be looking for someone to court martial and shoot. Or perhaps just shoot.”
Straight between the shoulder blades!
I was wondering how much detail she would go into with regard to the whole ‘Something of the Night’ episode, but she does not disappoint. She is also very candid about her relationship with Michael Portillo in the Hague Shadow Cabinet.
I really enjoyed this book. As a friend of hers, I was relieved I did. I’d hate to have to tell her it was awful! But a true friend is a candid friend. I hated leaving her a message in May 2001 telling her I was supporting David Davis in the leadership contest. I recently told her I didn’t think presenting the Sky Atlantic ‘Cleverdicks’ series was her finest moment in TV. But I have great pleasure in saying that this book is a cut above the usual political autobiography and I would have been proud to publish it, had I been given the chance. By all accounts it is selling really well, and has been in the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestsellers for several weeks now. It deserves to be.
STRICTLY ANN by Ann Widdecombe is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20 in hardback. Buy it HERE