Page last updated at 10:02 GMT, Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ann Widdecombe 'tested out' Howard quip

Anne Widdecombe
Miss Widdecombe's put-down proved damaging

Ann Widdecombe has revealed she "tested out" her "something of the night" quip credited with sinking Michael Howard's Tory leadership hopes in 1997.

The veteran Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4's PM programme she had tried it out on several people before using it in the House of Commons.

Miss Widdecombe worked under Mr Howard when he was home secretary.

The former prisons minister had clashed with him over the sacking of Prison Service director general Derek Lewis.

Miss Widdecombe, MP for for Maidstone and the Weald, remarked there was "something of the night" about Mr Howard during the Conservative leadership race in 1997.

'Humdinger'

Mr Howard came last out of five candidates in the first round of polling and William Hague became Tory leader.

Asked whether she realised the phrase would be a "humdinger", Miss Widdecombe told PM: " Yes. I had tested it out. I had this phrase in my head and I tested it out - and he had no idea I was doing that - on the permanent secretary at the Home Office at the time.

"I said 'I'm sorry, but there's just something of the night here' and he said 'Yes!' and I thought 'Right, scored!'

I wasn't trying to be complimentary
Ann Widdecombe

"Then I tried it on a couple of other people who reacted similarly and I thought 'Right, I've got a phrase that people understand'. You only understand a phrase like that if you don't have to explain it.

"Ten years later, people often ask me to explain it and at this point I can't, because the whole idea was that it spoke to people's instincts at the time."

Asked if the attack had finished him politically, Miss Widdecombe pointed out that Mr Howard went on to become Conservative leader in 2003. He stepped down after the party was defeated at the 2005 general election.

But she added: "Possibly at the time (it did), and that was the intention at the time. I wasn't trying to be complimentary."

She said her row with Mr Howard was now over but she was convinced she had done the right thing at the time because of the "grave injustice" done to Mr Lewis.

The sacking was also at the heart of a famous BBC Newsnight interview with Mr Howard in 1997, in which interviewer Jeremy Paxman asked the then home secretary the same question 12 times.

Mr Howard has since said that he has forgiven Miss Widdecombe for her quip - telling BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2004: "You go into politics with your eyes open. You know it's a rough and tough business. You have to take these things on the chin."

And he told the Times in 2006 that although the remark had been damaging, "what it probably did was to save me from the thankless task of becoming leader of the party in 1997" - following Labour's landslide election victory.

Both Conservative MPs are stepping down at the general election - which must be called by June 2010.



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