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Tuesday, December 22, 1998 Published at 15:18 GMT


October: Ann Widdecombe



Review of the Year
Ann Widdecombe began the year as a Conservative backbencher suffering in the wake of the party's massive 1997 election defeat, but was promoted in June to Shadow Health Secretary.

In October, her performance at the annual party gathering led to her being dubbed the new 'conference darling'.

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Being consigned to opposition is another way of being told 'Win the next election' and that is what I've been working towards. It was a year in which I knew there must be new opportunities and I can remember facing 1998 with considerable optimism.

I certainly wasn't aware that the party leaders had their eyes on me. As far as I was concerned, when I went to the backbenches in 1997 I thought I would be there for the duration of the parliament and was perfectly reconciled to that.

In March, it became very obvious that I might be promoted. I had had several very good run-ins with Tony Blair at Question Time, I'd had a couple of speeches which people had been very flattering about, there aren't a lot of women at the moment on the Conservative front bench and it did seem to me that it might be about to happen.

Whispers and 'wobbles'

You start to get a feeling from the gossip. I started to pick up vibes and the newspapers started to comment at the same time and that is ALWAYS indicative because someone is briefing them.

The reshuffle was on a Monday and on the Sunday night I had been to Mother Teresa's memorial service. I had my pager on, but of course it was on 'wobble' rather than bleep. I was walking along the road not thinking of anything, when this thing started to 'wobble' on my waist and it said: 'Please call the leader's office'.

When I called William Hague's office they asked whether I could come in and see him at 8am the next morning and I said I was terribly sorry but I couldn't because I had a constituency function. The I asked the immortal question: 'Is it something important?' They very kindly rescheduled it - and yes it was important!

Provocative, but no riot

I was very pleased to get such an important brief as health. I had a very slight doubt because of my very strong conscience views on abortion, which I oppose. But equally there are huge challenges in health. There is the whole business of how you manage to meet the level of expectation and demand when you don't have unlimited supplies of either money or people.

This year, I think I've done two things. One I've helped to expose the very cynical approach that Labour took before the last election, which was basically saying: 'There's nothing wrong with the health service other than the fact that there's a Tory government.'

But I think in the long term I've done something which is rather more important, which is to try and ask the big questions of the day which politicians are often afraid to ask such as: 'Can we really expect the NHS to do it all?' 'If the NHS cannot do it all, then what do we do next?' I've managed to ask those questions without causing a riot - and that gives me some sense of achievement.

Highlight of my year

When I went to Bournemouth for the party conference I had no idea I was going to get such a good reception. It took me completely by surprise.

I had decided that I was going to give rather a different sort of speech - I wanted to do what comes fairly naturally to me, which is to move about and talk without notes.

I didn't learn it by heart because if I had started to forget then I would have been totally lost. So I read the speech through about 10 times, concentrating very, very closely, and I got in my head the various themes and how they linked to another. Then I just relied on remembering what I had read and I am told by people who knew that I had stuck to about 90% of it.

As I put down my notes I would be a terrible liar if I said I didn't have a few qualms. At the point at which I walked away from them and down onto the front of the stage, I did think: 'Oh, Widdecombe, I wonder if this is such a good idea?'

But afterwards it felt wonderful. It was like being on cloud nine. I was delighted by the response. Of course I couldn't see the response as I was speaking though I could hear the claps and the laughter but the lighting was such that I couldn't actually see the audience.

And the way the media proclaimed me the new "conference darling" was an extremely interesting development.

When I look back over 1998, the party conference definitely stands out as the great highlight.
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In this section

January: Scott Ritter

February: Touched by an angel

March: Jane Couch

April: Gitta Sereny

May (1): People of Northern Ireland

May (2): Mo Mowlam

June: The England-Argentina referee

July: Gill Samuels, Viagra creator

August: David Shayler

September: Neville Lawrence

October: Ann Widdecombe

November: Sally Becker

December: Deborah Hickey