She’s the no-nonsense politician who’s been transformed into a Strictly contestant, panto queen and even opera star. But on Tuesday Ann Widdecombe might face her hardest judges yet when she addresses students at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston
Wearing a rather striking red dress, Ann Widdecombe breezes into the oldest, most elite Conservative Club in the country; a fitting venue to talk about her political career and subsequent rise to celebrity status.
The splash of red isn’t a sign of rebellion from the former Tory minister, even though she brands David Cameron “pig-headed” in her new autobiography, Strictly Ann. She’s still a Conservative at heart.
Wearing little make-up, her wispy grey hair skimming her shoulders, the straight-talking former MP admits that she has, since her retirement from politics, become an “unwitting celebrity”.
“I think that sums it up rather admirably,” she says, chuckling. “I shall quote that. I’m not averse to it now it’s happened. When I’m out and about I see people nudging each other. I always smile and wave.”
Widdecombe, 65, has been described as the nation’s favourite maiden aunt, and it’s a fitting analogy. She’s highly intelligent, slightly eccentric, straight-laced, moralistic, funny, feisty and fearless.
There’s a twinkle of mischief about her and she’s not averse to being ribbed about the light entertainment shows in which she’s appeared, including Celebrity Fit Club, Have I Got News For You, a cameo in Doctor Who and, most famously, Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, in which she partnered Anton du Beke and, despite her lack of dance skills, lasted 10 weeks.
“I wasn’t expecting it to last for more than three weeks. If you’d have said to me, you’re still going to be there in week 10, then you’re going on the live tour, then you’re going into pantomime, then you’ll be on at the Royal Opera House (in a cameo, non-singing role), all as a result of Strictly, I’d have said, ‘Have an aspirin’.”
Widdecombe recalls: “Nobody who was my friend wanted me to do it. They thought: loss of dignity, loss of fan base.
“They thought it would give the wrong impression and diminish me in the eyes of the public.
“I said, ‘Hang on, I’m not an MP any more, it’s no good expecting me to behave as an MP’. I thought Strictly would be fun. It was also the best-paid show in town.
“My first sensation when doing Strictly was the absolute loss of responsibility. Until that moment, everything I had done in my whole adult life could have affected other people, from the way I voted in parliament to the policies I espoused as minister.
“Strictly? Other than Anton’s shins, what could I affect? Absolutely nothing. It was a huge release.”
These days, she turns down a lot of TV work, including Big Brother, which she describes as “nothing except voyeurism”, and I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here (“I don’t want to eat witchetty grubs”).
Widdecombe’s strong faith – she converted to Catholicism when the Anglican Church voted to ordain women – and high moral ground with regard to family values, come across in her autobiography.
Simply Ann charts her life from her happy, peripatetic childhood in Singapore, where her father worked for the Admiralty, convent school days in Bath and student ambitions at Birmingham and Oxford, to her 23 years as an MP, the more recent showbiz appearances and the deaths of her parents and brother.
It also reveals details of her first – and only – love. Colin Maltby was a fellow student at Oxford, whom she met in her final year. The romance lasted nearly three years but ended after she started working in London and he remained at Oxford, eventually meeting someone else.
She said: “When it did break up, my underlying assumption was that I would still get married, that somebody else would turn up. But it was never such a priority that I went out looking for him.
“If Mr Right had barged his way into my life, that would have been fine, but he didn’t.”
She doesn’t regret not having children, but adds that she would rather have had them than not.
“But you could say to me, would I rather have been Prime Minister than not? The honest answer would be yes. Would I rather have been a millionaire than not? Yes. Would I rather have been tall and blonde and beautiful? No, actually.
“But that doesn’t mean that you are actively sad about the things that didn’t happen. I’ve had a happy, healthy life and those are the things I rejoice in.”
Further romance never came along. “I’m not saying I didn’t occasionally look at a man and think, ‘Oh yes, he’s rather nice, I fancy him’, but there were no actual relationships.”
In a successful political career, Widdecombe was MP for Maidstone for 23 years, Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary during William Hague’s leadership, opposed abortion and supported the death penalty, had famous fall-outs with Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, and is not likely to endear herself to the Coalition if her observations about the current government are anything to go by.
In the book, she describes David Cameron as “big-headed” and “pig-headed”, saying he wasn’t experienced enough to become leader, scorning his A-list and accusing him of wanting to broaden the Conservatives’ image by filling its benches with women, homosexuals and those from ethnic minorities.
She said: “What worries me now is not so much big-headedness as pig-headedness; this business of not listening to anybody.”
While many long-serving MPs are elevated to the House of Lords on their retirement, Widdecombe never received a peerage. Why would this be?
“Ask Cameron,” she advises. “I was marginally disappointed but I wasn’t upset because I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I don’t waste time on this now.”
And on life: “It’s not a dress rehearsal. You have to live life as you want to, believe that’s what God expects you to do, and to live it decently,” she says.