ID: How much of your time are thinking about and preparing for retirement?
AW: Quite a lot, but the plans have been in place for a long time. I’ve bought a house on Dartmoor. I know exactly what I’m going to do. The office is beginning to gear up. We’ve got 22 years of archives which we’re pruning through. People here are beginning to think about what their own futures are going to be. Meanwhile, the ordinary stuff is happening as well.
Why on earth choose Dartmoor? It’s a very solitary place.
That’s precisely why I’ve chosen Dartmoor.
Having gone from a life with lots of people around you, you’re going to be on your own all the time.
That’s what I want. I don’t want to be a hermit but I want a much more solitary existence.
The great attraction of Dartmoor is that it really is possible that if you get out deep in you really can go a whole day and if you see anybody else it will only be in the distance. And if, as you rightly say, you’ve lived a life when you never have a spare minute away from people, then you do really appreciate your own company when you can get it. And I think it’s one of the reasons – and I don’t want to overplay it – that I’ve been very contented not to have married and not to have had a family. Because what I’ve always been able to do is to go home at night and shut the door and then I’ve got peace and quiet. And the most I’ve ever had is a couple of cats or in latter years my Mum. I’ve always valued that, I’ve always actually like my own company. I like time to think. I like time to ruminate gently.
It’s quite rare for a politician to say that they’re comfortable in their own company.
I don’t think that’s true. Why do you think that Winston Churchill used to just go quietly away and sketch? Not writing. Writing’s actually quite a tumultuous business because you’re heavily engaged in what you’re doing. But he used to paint and that’s a very solitary pastime.
You’re not someone I’d describe as clubbable. Is that a problem in politics: that you have to go through all the social niceties, you have to smile at people and pretend that you think they’re wonderful, if you actually don’t get right to the top?
I’ve never pretended to think people are wonderful if I haven’t thought they’re wonderful. I’m perfectly pleasant to people. I think you have to be clubbable in the sense that if you’re a complete stranger to the bars and restaurants of Westminster you will just miss out on the ordinary gelling that goes on between colleagues. So you do need some of that. I do think I’m a clubbable person. Last night I was taking on the Carlton [Club] and saying ‘come on: we need a club table where ladies and gentlemen can mix’. I do feel a part of the team, but I’ve got my own views. I’ve always known what I wanted to do and under William Hague certainly I was allowed to do it.
You quite like a good gossip don’t you?
Er, I quite like a good gossip, yes. Depends where it’s leading of course [laughs]. Maybe leading in directions one wouldn’t want to go.
So when you’re sitting in your study in your house on your own in Dartmoor, what will you be doing?
I shall write more novels. I shall try my hand at a detective novel. Now, you may well say ‘what do I mean by ‘try my hand at’ when I’ve already got four novels published?’ But the way I write and have always written is that it is a work of exploration. So I invent a situation, introduce some characters and throw the two together and I see what happens. And therefore in three of my four books at the end I have been surprised. When I sit down to write I very rarely know what’s going to happen by the time I stand up. You can’t write a detective novel that way. You actually have to know from the first sentence who did it and why and how. You can’t wait to see what happens at the end. So it’s a completely different discipline and I’d like to see if I’ve got it.
What about your memoirs?
I’ve decided after a lot of vacillating. I was never entirely certain I was going to write them – I’ve always said facetiously that the best time to publish them is posthumously. Because if you are to tell the whole unvarnished truth you’ll upset friends as well as enemies and I don’t fancy the prospect of a friendless old age even though I am going down to Dartmoor. So I was never entirely certain I was going to write them.
I remember you telling me that you definitely wouldn’t.
I don’t think that I said that. But I very often said that I thought not. That I thought the balance was against it. I always held a little chink open and of course it’s a chink through which agents and others have tried to climb. I think I have been persuaded that it will be a good idea. But it won’t be the sort of memoir which produces very juicy gossip.
It won’t sell then, will it?
Maybe not. Maybe you’re right. But it will be a genuine set of memoirs.
Have you started?
I’ve made a start. Even at the point of starting I was profoundly unconvinced that I was necessarily going through with the project. I don’t think now that I shall abandon it because I am loath to have wasted that work. But I was never gagging to write my memoirs. I am not longing to expose something. I don’t have anything like that in my mind.
Would you like to go to the Lords?
That’s entirely within the gift of David Cameron. It’s not within my gift. So I have no idea whether it’s going to be offered or not. If it’s offered, I shall take it. If not, I shan’t bury myself in a handkerchief.
What kind of peer would you be?
A pretty good one I would think [laughs]. I don’t want to be a minister: red boxes, days that begin with the Today Programme and end long after Newsnight. If I’d have wanted that sort of life, realising that we’re going into government, I’d have stayed on. I don’t want that sort of life. I’ve done that, been there, got the t-shirt. On the other hand, I don’t think that one can take a peerage and treat it as an honorific and do nothing whatever. So I think the answer to your question is that I would be a moderately active but not obsessively active peer.
I think Baroness Widdecombe of Widdecombe in the county of Devon has a certain ring to it.
I haven’t given that any thought. That would be presumptuous [laughs]. And anyway I couldn’t be ‘of’ anything except Maidstone. That would be a terrible insult to Maidstone. I’m pleased to say that Maidstone would have priority.
When did you decide to throw your hat into the ring for the Speakership?
On the day that Michael Martin resigned, two colleagues came up to me –Nigel Evans and Mark Pritchard –and asked me to stand. My reaction was polite but inside I was laughing. It was ridiculous. I was standing down. Who wants a speaker for a maximum of a year? It seemed a silly proposition. However, I became convinced that, because of the extraordinary situation that we were in, there was merit in that suggestion. Then some Labour people approached me and said they thought it would be a good idea as well. People were ringing up my office saying go for it. And of course, as ever, the public were behind it. I won just about every opinion poll very convincingly. But as usual, and we saw it over the leadership in 2001, the view of the public is not necessarily reflected in parliament. I was actually pleased with the result: it was a respectable result.
Do you think if you hadn’t been standing down, things might have been very different?
I don’t know the answer to that. A lot of Labour people who were prepared to support would only do so if I agreed to stay on. I said no. For many reasons: I have a successor who’s worked the seat hard.
You could have gone for another seat.
That I would not have done. That’s unfair because you’d just be a token in another seat. You wouldn’t know it or anything. I had a successor who had worked very hard for a year. My own private plans were well advanced – I’d bought the house on Dartmoor; I had the column in the Express. All my plans were in place. But far more than that: I simply want to go. There have been straws in the wind for some time. I now prefer the countryside to the metropolis. I prefer the whimsy of Countdown to the bash-bash of Question Time. And these straws have been arriving over some period and I know I want to go. There would have been a terrible upheaval to have faced supposing I had decided to stay on and supposing Maidstone had agreed that I should stay on. I could never express a view again. I would have had to have disappeared into that – I nearly called it a mausoleum – into that place over there [laughs and points to the Speaker’s Apartments] and not come out and mixed with colleagues – your clubbable point. In the end I thought I just don’t want any of that.
You clearly considered staying on, though?
Not seriously, but I had to keep justifying why I wasn’t staying on. So all these things that I’m saying to you now – my successor, my own plans were advanced – these were arguments I was deploying the whole time. But I knew inside me that the major reason was I simply wanted to go.
Is that because you become disillusioned with politics?
No. There isn’t a great shaking the dust off my feet, brushing down my robe. There isn’t any of that stuff. But things have changed: I came into this place as a Member of Parliament, I leave it as an employee of the House of Commons, and they’re completely different. And if we’re not careful, we are going to end up with a parliament full of professional politicians, with precious little contact in a sensible way with the outside world. We’re going to end up with rules and targets and all the things that currently paralyse so much of British life. And it has no appeal at all. We’re moving away from a loose gathering of people from all professions and none who get together to make law and make decisions of state. We’ve passed from that to becoming actual employees. Now that might suit some people well. It doesn’t suit me. I do not believe that in the end, it’s going to suit the country. I think we’re going to have a thoroughly third-rate parliament. Already the quality’s declined but I think this will precipitate a parliament full of career politicians. If you’re a dentist for example, you must pull teeth, you cannot stop pulling them after a ten-year gap. You must pull teeth. And so you need to keep your hand in.
Yes. You have to do it. You’re told you have to come in to a place where you cannot practice, you won’t come in. But it goes beyond that. It’s all very well to talk about professional politicians but if you’re in a profession, you make a reasonable assumption: you train and from the end of your training until the day that you hang up your hat, you practice that profession. You can’t do that in politics: we have this thing called an election every five years. We have this thing called a Boundaries Commission which can wipe you out with one stroke of the pen. You can’t do that: it’s not a profession. And we’re trying to set up something which simply won’t work and which will give a very poor service.
But in the end, isn’t that the fault of the House of Commons of which you have been a part?
Of course it is. But one of the things is, we’re just very panicky here. It’s the internal equivalent of the ‘dangerous dogs’legislation which was a load of nonsense. Of the gun law which I – poor muffin –had to take through parliament. It was a load of nonsense and wasn’t going to do anything to stop gun crime. We panic in response to a deep public reaction. And that is, as far as I’m concerned, an abdication of responsibility. We shouldn’t. But that is not the reason I’m going. It’s part of a great mix of reasons and at the end I’ve simply had enough. The straws have been arriving which say you want to go off to a different set of pastures. I do not want to grow old in office. I’ve still got some of vigour left and I might even discover more after I’ve retired! [laughs]
God help us all.
I want to go off and use it elsewhere.
In the next parliament there could be three hundred new MPs. What effect do you think that will have both positive and negative?
I think it will actually be quite a difficult parliament to run. I don’t envy David Cameron. It isn’t so much that we’ve got new MPs, but we’ve got a vast number with no experience at all. It is profoundly desirable that you always have in parliament people who’ve come in completely fresh because they’re the one who have the fresh perspective. But it’s also crucial that you’re anchored. And there’s been an attitude in the Conservative Party for some time that grey hair isn’t worth anything. Never more so than in candidate selection. We have some very good [ex] MPs who lost their seats in 1997. Those of us who survived in 1997 were lucky. We were blessed. We were not somehow superior beings. And yet that is how we reacted and we started passing judgments on colleagues who’d lost. They didn’t desert their seats when they lost in 1997 and go off to green pastures, they stayed with them. Those people have been treated with contempt by the party. I think the party is wrong and it’s going to rue the day. It isn’t going to have the experience that it ought to be able to call on. Not just in forming a government, but also in running a parliament.
How do you think Mr Bercow is doing?
I think John’s got an uphill task. It’s a situation no one foresaw. The irony is when you’re standing you have to produce three names from parties other than your own. Nobody ever said ‘you need three from your own party as well’ because nobody ever assumed it would be necessary. And what I think any Speaker needs is cross-party consensus in the House of Commons because then they’re the servant of the House of Commons. If they’re a simply partisan appointment, it stores up trouble. That was Michael [Martin]’s problem. John’s begun against a huge tide of resentment because it’s seen as a partisan appointment. But he is now the Speaker of the House of Commons and I think whether or not he’s successful will depend entirely on him and how he decides how to discharge the office.
Your face during his speech was a picture.
Yes. It was not my wished-for appointment. But I take the same line with the Speaker which I’ve always taken with party leaders. There’s got to be losers in any election by definition. When somebody’s won, you want to try and make it work and get behind them. If we keep turning on this Speaker, we’ll turn into a rabble because he’s the authority figure in the House of Commons. So you’ve got to try and make it work. I said that when Michael Martin was appointed and I say it now John Bercow has been appointed.
And if it doesn’t, should he be challenged?
I do hope not, because if we get into the habit of turning on our Speaker we really do become a rabble. It happened with Michael after 300 years. I would willingly wait another 300 years before we do it again.
What did you make of David Cameron’s plea for anybody to come forward who wants to be a conservative candidate a few weeks ago? Apparently 4,000 have.
I think he’s wrong. It’s been well known for a long time that David and I have not agreed on candidate selection. I think he’s a fantastic leader, he’s winning. But all leaders get some things wrong and I think our approach –which hasn’t just been David’s – to candidate selection over the last few years has been completely misguided. We have gone for category rather than ability. We’re looking for more women. I’m all for more women, I’m all for more members of the ethnic communities, I’m all for more anythings as long as they get there on merit. I believe as a woman, that every woman in parliament should be able to look every man from the Prime Minister downwards in the eye and to think she got there on exactly the same basis that he got there. And if she can’t she’s a second class citizen. We’re going to have a Conservative Party full of second-class citizens.
You are calling your successor in Maidstone a second-class citizen.
No. I think – and she would say – she wished there were no A-list. That she wished she’d been allowed to compete on merit because the fact is she’d have got through anyway. But what was happening was that we were told – and that moment in the selection process stands out in my memory –that we had to have in the final, two men and two women regardless of the assessments we’d made. Helen [Grant, Conservative PPC for Maidstone and The Weald] was going to go through anyway. And one of our Association said to the Central Office agent ‘are you telling us that we may not select on merit?’ And with admirable honesty the Central Office agent said ‘yes’. Now that is lunatic: it is putting cart before horse. First you look at merit, then you look at category. I think we’ve actually insulted a lot of women who would have got there on their own merit. Instead we’ve insisted on equal numbers on the shortlist, fast tracking on A-lists. I’m very glad in didn’t happen in my day.
What do you think is the best thing that David Cameron has done?
To win. And I’m not being facetious.
He hasn’t won yet.
He’s well set to. That is the best thing he’s done. Because as I say to everybody: if you want to do anything about anything, you actually need to be there. We’ve got virtually the whole of Britain behind us on fighting post office closures. What can we do about it? Nothing. We’ve got a vast majority of the population on our side on having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. What can we do about it? Nothing. It doesn’t matter how good your policies are, how popular they are, how much on side the public is. You can’t do a darn thing about anything unless you’re actually in Number Ten. And what Cameron has done is to get us in a position where it’s now assumed that we’re now getting into Number Ten. That, to me, is his great contribution.
Do you find yourself having to bite your tongue from time to time? You have spoken out on a number of things – specifically home office issues, civil liberties – where you’re not in tune with the party’s agenda. Do you find yourself having to think, ‘I just can’t rock the boat on this’?
That balance is normal. You always have that balance and the pressure it produces always intensifies the nearer to an election you get. The reason that Michael Howard was able to get away with sacking Howard Flight was that we were so close to a general election the party wasn’t going to go into rebellion. And nor should it have done, if you’ve got your eye on the big things. Sure, as an election gets closer you button your lips a bit more. But I do believe that one of the roles of MPs who’ve served in senior office and who’ve got the experience is not to rock the boat for the sake of rocking the boat, but occasionally to deploy that experience in argument.
Give me an example.
It so happens that I know that an awful lot of people in our party– and by that I mean a lot– are deeply unhappy with the way that we’ve signed up apparently quite blindly to the climate change agenda. It isn’t that they don’t want sensible things like recycling, it isn’t a silly rebellion. But there is a deep unease that we’re rushing in virtually to a theology: those who asked questions are ‘deniers’. The language is theological. We’re rushing in to what has become a theology imposed by the equivalent of what has become the mediaeval church and that nobody’s allowed to question it. And that even by questioning it, you’re doing the world a massive disservice and bringing it under perdition. A lot of us are very unhappy but when it came to a division on climate change; three of us actually opposed the bill. I was almost surprised that there were that many. Supposing instead of three of us, there had been so many of us that there were a few votes in the balance. That becomes a much bigger question. It’s easy to be one of three. It’s very difficult to be one of three who make a difference and embarrass the party big time by doing so. That I think is a subtlety that often isn’t appreciated. It’s easy to be party of a small minority that is making a racket; it is very difficult when what you do will have an adverse effect on the party.
You have a reputation for going against the grain and standing up in a very lonely way sometimes. You did it on ‘something of the night’, fox hunting, climate change. What’s it like being in that fairly lonely position?
It is a lot more comfortable that people outside think. The whips always know when they’re on a winner and a loser. They always know when it’s worth putting pressure on somebody and when it’s not. And sure they went through the motions with me on fox hunting and I said ‘no this is the view I take and it’s supposed to be a free vote’. ‘Something of the night’ was phenomenally difficult, it was the only time that I remember when Betty [Boothroyd] called my name I didn’t want to stand up. But I set my hand to the plough and wasn’t going to turn back. If you feel very strongly about something, you are not sent to [Parliament] simply to act as a lackey. While you’re in government or in the shadow cabinet, you bear collective responsibility. You’ve got to think very carefully before resigning in protest, because if you resign in protest you’ve resigned a lot more than that position then. You’ve resigned your reputation as a reliable person. There will be circumstances in which that is still the right thing to do. But on the whole if you want stability – and everyone accepts that when you want to speak as a member of the government or the shadow cabinet, you’re speaking for the government and for the opposition and not for yourself – when you’re a back bencher people assume the exact opposite: you’re representing yourself. And therefore you can’t betray yourself by taking a line that actually you don’t take.
Is there a modern day politician of whom you would say they have something of the night about them?
If I did assume so I wouldn’t say so. I think once in a lifetime is enough for most people.
It was a sound bite that over the last fifteen years has resonated more than most.
You have to put it in the context of its time. Everyone knew what I meant when I said it. Now everybody says ‘what did you mean?’ But back then everybody knew exactly what I was saying. That’s why it as so successful at the time.
Do you regret any of the more trivial TV shows that you’ve done?
No, not at all. I’m very comfortable with the ones I have not done. Huge pressure was brought on me this year to try Big Brother and I said no and I wouldn’t even meet the people. I disapprove of it. It’s not that I don’t want to do it which is a different issue altogether. I actually disapprove of it. I wouldn’t ever do I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here because I’m too squeamish. I’m not going to eat slugs. Eugh! No thank you! I resisted Strictly Come Dancing right up to this year when I took the request slightly more seriously; maybe because I’m retiring. But the ones that I’ve said yes to on the whole – in retrospect – either I’m glad I did – as in Fit Club, which was a huge balance of judgement, I nearly didn’t do it – or as in Louis Theroux: I’m not unhappy that I did that, even though I’m not rejoicing and bouncing up and down about it. But there is one I regret. Way back, shortly after I’d come in, when I was still a back bencher, I gave a profile which involved coming round with me for a day to Simon Sebag-Montefiore. I deeply wish I hadn’t. That journalist will never interview me again. Indeed many years later when I was in the ‘Shadow Home’ job, I had great joy in turning down a request.
Strictly Come Dancing: You’re not doing it, but you’ve thought about it?
I did very seriously consider it. I won’t deny that John Sergeant gave me quite a lot of reassurance because if he can galumph around the floor well I can galumph around the floor. I’ve always thought that cavorting around with those frightfully elegant mortals, I’d look a complete idiot. But what I’ve realised from John’s performance is they do let you go at your own pace. If I’m allowed to go at my own pace, it’s not such a horrible thought. [giggles]
So you’re still in the running for it?
Certainly not this year but once I’ve retired. They may come back, they may not; they may never come back. I don’t worry about those things.
I remember before you said you adamantly wouldn’t do ever go on Have I Got News For You and now you’ve presented it twice with astonishing success.
I’ve had two completely different reactions to Have I Got News For You; the first time I did it I was nervous but thoroughly enjoyed it and I came out and said “Oh, I’d love to do that every week”. The second time I did it, we had Jimmy Carr on the panel and of course to get the show that you see we have to record for a couple of hours. And two hours of non-stop vulgarity from Jimmy Carr was more than I could stand. I came out with exactly the opposite reaction that ‘I am never ever going to do this again. No amount of money is worth sitting through that’. I’ve mellowed [laughs]. Now I remember the first one with some fondness and I think why not try the best of three and see what happens?
What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview?
I’d just love a TV interviewer to say ‘what is the purpose of this policy’ and listen to the answer. They never ask that. They always assume they know the purpose and go in on some abstruse angle, and it’s such a waste of time. So it would be quite nice if just very occasionally they said to you what is the purpose of this? Having said that, there were two occasions when I was in office and was giving interview to the Today Programme where I actually said to them at the beginning: ‘Look I know we’ve only got two minutes or whatever it is, but please give me at the start the ability to set the context of the policy and I will only do it in three sentences’. And I stuck to my bargain and kept it short and they stuck to theirs and didn’t interrupt. It’s worth knowing that. You can sometimes negotiate a little bit with them.
What’s the worst bit of sexism you’ve experienced in politics?
I don’t think I’ve experienced much. I don’t think I’ve been looking for it of course. I find that women do go looking for it. About 6 months after the Blair babes came in, one of them came up to me in a corridor and said, ‘Anne isn’t it horrible how the men are so rude to us?’ And I said ‘yes and isn’t is so horrible how they’re rude to each other?’ She’d never thought of that. She’d be roughed up in the chamber, she assumed it was because she was a woman. It was actually because she was useless. I’ve been roughed up in the chamber before and I’ve roughed others up. That is the cut and thrust of politics. You don’t take it personally. I’ve never gone looking for [sexism] and therefore I’ve never found much.
What would you do if you were Alistair Darling?
I don’t know. I’m very glad I’m not Alistair Darling for all manner of reasons. I’ve never aspired to be the Chancellor. I can tell you exactly what I’d do if I were Jack Straw or Alan Johnson. I do not know exactly what I’d do if I were in the Treasury but I know exactly what I’d do if I were in Number Ten, which is to take a fair and square look at the amount of bureaucracy and its cost in this country. I have never known a period in my lifetime when the state was so intrusive on the ordinary individual. If you happen to have a leaf in your recycling bin, this is an offense. The state is taking an interest in your rubbish, the state monitors your journeys, and all the time you’ve got a bureaucracy which is backing up this vast intrusion. David [Cameron] said quite rightly that he would demolish a lot of the QUANGOs. So he should. He should also reduce the sheer scope of Whitehall - which is vast – and the amount of money we spend in this country on things that we shouldn’t be spending it on. It’s a bit like a housewife: if you’ve got a very tight period you look at your whole budget and you say ‘what do I have to spend?’ Frankly, if we asked ourselves, ‘do we really have to spend this money’, we’d come up with the answer ‘no’.
What would like your political epitaph to be?
Go tell the chief whip passers by that here alack unpaired I lie [laughs].
Why have you decided not to be blonde anymore?
Very simple. When I retire I want to spend a lot of time swimming. Chlorine and hair dye produce some rather odd results. [laughs]
What book are you reading?
Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice.
What songs do you like on your ipod at the moment?
How Great Thou Art by Aled Jones.
From my study in Dartmoor.
Should one kiss on a first date?
Well it depends what sort of kiss one is talking about. I don’t wish to go into that any further!
Political hate figure, excluding Michael Howard?
Last concert you went to?
I’m tone deaf. I don’t go to concerts.
Last film you saw at the cinema?
It’s a forty round trip to the cinema from Dartmoor. I buy the DVDs!
Most formidable political opponent?
Most admired opposition politician?
Favourite holiday destination?
Best friend in politics?