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Monday, February 8, 1999 Published at 13:41 GMT

UK Politics

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The shadow health secretary is widely acknowledged as the star Conservative performer and is now talked about as a potential future leader.

Perhaps the plainest speaker in the House of Commons, she is famous for sticking to her views even when it might be easier to dodge the question.

A Catholic convert from an Anglican family, Miss Widdecombe is fiercely anti-abortion and in favour of capital punishment. She is also, famously, a virgin. ("If anyone says I am not a virgin," she has said, "I will sue.")

Major's first women minister

Having decided she wanted to become a politician aged 14, Miss Widdecombe studied first Latin at Birmingham University and then politics at Oxford. She went on to work in marketing for London University, before being elected as the MP for Maidstone in 1987.

Her rise to the ranks of government was swift. She soon found herself on the frontbenches as former Prime Minister John Major's first women minister working in the Home Office alongside then Home Secretary Michael Howard.

It was events following Labour's victory in the 1997 election that elevated Miss Widdecombe in the wider public consciousness. After Mr Major made a speedy exit from the Tory top job, she positioned herself as a direct obstacle in the path Mr Howard saw himself following to become leader.

'Something of the night'

One phrase was enough to wreck any chances Mr Howard might have had of achieving his aim. Her former boss, Miss Widdecombe said, had "something of the night" about him.

For a time, this intervention appeared to have won her the prospect of a prolonged period on the backbenches. But before long, the eventual winner of the leadership contest, William Hague, decided to give her the key job of shadow health secretary.

Her performances both in Parliament and in keynote speeches confirmed the qualities she brought to the role. Her success in wooing the faithful at the Tory's 1998 conference was comparable only to that of Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam at Labour's annual bash.

Christmas day in hospital

Her own personal rituals also seem to underline her suitability for the post of shadow health secretary. While both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr Hague have visited hospitals recently, Miss Widdecombe has apparently been doing it for years.

In a recent interview about how Christians mark the birth of Christ, she told BBC News Online: "I have neither lunch nor dinner on Christmas day. Instead I visit the hospital and other emergency services in my constituency including the centre for the homeless.

"I take humbugs and fudge on the grounds that surely people would expect nothing else from a politician. I also round off the visit by going to see the new-born Christmas babies. Somehow this routine recaptures the spirit of Christmas which otherwise would be commercialised out of recognition."

But, should the Conservatives win the next general election, Miss Widdecombe has made it clear she would not take up the job of health secretary if she was offered. She says her views on abortion would make it impossible for her to head a health service that offers the operation.

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