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banner Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Widdecombe's hard man act backfires
Ann Widdecombe and William Hague at Tory conference
Ann Widdecombe celebrated her birthday with a crackdown on drugs
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Ann Widdecombe's attempt to portray herself as the most zero tolerant politician on the planet has dramatically backfired.

The shadow home secretary used her Tory conference speech to announce a tough new policy on drugs in a clear attempt to out-do Jack Straw in the hard man stakes.

But within minutes of her speech - which delighted the party faithful - the policy was dismissed by police and anti-drugs workers as unworkable and ill-thought out.

Both William Hague and party chairman Michael Ancram were forced to "clarify" her remarks, insisting the policy had been discussed by the shadow cabinet and would stand.

But there was the widespread belief that the woman who still remains the darling of the conference had dropped a major clanger.

And she was being accused in some quarters of casting a shadow over the entire conference.

The annual shoot-out to decide who is the toughest sheriff in town has always been one of the highlights of the political conference season.

It used to be a foregone conclusion, with Tory Home Secretaries like Michael Howard regularly blowing their opponents away.

In those days, Labour was eager to be seen as liberal and reformist on crime while the Tories wanted to string everybody up at sunrise.

That all changed with New Labour when the party decided it had to steal the Conservatives' law and order clothes and announced it would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime."

Hammering criminals

It was an astute piece of political positioning and undoubtedly won may wavering Tories over to Labour at the last election.

But it also dramatically upped the ante. And ever since, the two major parties have spent their time trying to prove they are the most "zero tolerant."

Only the Liberal Democrats now dare to walk down the reformist path with policies on legalising cannabis, gay marriages and the like.

The real battle is now all about hammering criminals as hard as possible.

Jack Straw certainly looks the part with his steel-rimmed glasses and "are you talking to me" demeanour.

His policies on asylum seekers, freedom of information and jury trials have seen him regularly abused by Old Labour activists as reactionary and intolerant.

So his Tory counterpart has to do something pretty spectacular to beat him.

Ms Widdecombe undoubtedly did it with her zero tolerance on drugs, but many believe she went over the top.

On her 53rd birthday she stomped onto the platform in Bournemouth with one objective in mind - to claw back the Tories' reputation as the true party of law and order.

She insisted she would free police officers from the bureaucracy and form-filling that keeps them off the beat.

She said prisoners would be forced to work and that policeMEN - as she called them in gloriously un-PC language - would be reintegrated into the community.

Fixed fines

She even appeared to suggest that farmer Tony Martin - who killed a burglar with a 12 bore - should never have been prosecuted. That won huge applause.

And, inevitably, she tore into Jack Straw for cutting police numbers and allowing Britain to be a soft touch for asylum seekers.

But she also unveiled her plans for fixed fines for anyone found in possession of even tiny amounts of cannabis.

The conference loved it but it went down like a lead balloon outside. But this is an increasingly drought-ridden area.

As long as the two main parties agree on the need to be illiberal and hard-nosed about crime, there will be little room for them to manouvre.

The only way they can go is to try and out do each other in the hardman stakes and, on Wednesday, Ms Widdecombe probably took a step too far.

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See also:

24 Sep 00 | Labour
Straw 'not delivering on crime'
25 Sep 00 | Labour
Straw outlines crime measures
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