By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
From Tory MP to agony aunt - Ann Widdecombe is travelling the nation dispensing no-nonsense advice. What are her tips for tackling the slings and arrows of daily life?
There is nothing television viewers like better, it would seem, than a brisk telling-off. Flibbity-gibbets that we are, we just can't get enough of lifestyle shows fronted by matronly types sturdy of bosom and stern of demeanour.
Witness the success of Kim and Aggie of How Clean..., Kirstie "Location Location" Allsopp, Dr Tanya "Little Angels" Byron and What Not to Wear's Trinny and Susannah.
And now the Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald is to join this roll-call with a new TV series. But try telling her that.
"I don't see myself as part of that tradition at all," she says (brusque of tone and forthright of opinion). "I don't tell people what to do. I approach their problems with common sense. I'm not an expert; I just tell people this is what I would do in your circumstances."
This may be so, but when suggestions are delivered with Miss Widdecombe's trademark staccato, they can seem to take on the mantle of an order.
This includes suggesting that a father, concerned that his daughter wants a boob job, instead pays for her to spend a year working with the less fortunate in Africa. That he even considers it is an indication of the pampered nouveau riche style to which this family is accustomed.
More insightful is her advice to heavily-tattooed Spud. His girlfriend Leah is upset that he wants to illustrate his left cheek, thereby completing a full-face tattoo.
Ann with Spud and Leah
It's not the tattoo that bothers Leah - herself the possessor of numerous tats and piercings - a clearly-discomforted Miss Widdecombe confides to Spud. It's that their relationship of three years is characterised by him riding roughshod over her opinions, and he risks losing her if he does it again.
She suggests a compromise - if after six months Spud is still dead-set on the tattoo, Leah can help design it.
It is this give and take, each party making a compromise, that Miss Widdecombe says she generally recommends.
Another of her top tips is to look to thyself - take responsibility for your actions, rather than shift the blame on to others. "Frustratingly - and this is all too common in human relationships - somebody says 'he's got a problem' or 'she's got a problem', when it is in fact that person who has the problem."
Agony aunt is not a role that the redoubtable Miss Widdecombe has chosen herself; it has been thrust upon her, first by the Guardian, which last year invited her to pen an advice column entitled Buck Up!
There, her approach was typically forthright:
- "Stop getting in a tizz about this. Good night."
- "What is the big deal here? Get a life."
- "Give him an ultimatum and don't be wet enough to give it twice."
Nor is she a fan of problem pages, therapists and public confessionals. Instead, she says that constituency work has honed her ability to speak to all manner of people about all manner of problems.
As befits a devout Christian, she has said that her most trusted adviser is St Paul, for "the very sound advice he gives in his epistles". Though his writings on love - and particularly the popular wedding reading of Corinthians 13 - have inspired generations of Christians, St Paul - like Miss Widdecombe - is not someone short of forthright opinions.
So how does Miss Widdecombe measure up as an agony aunt? Pretty much spot on, says Laura Marcus, a radio agony aunt and counsellor.
Born in Bath, 1947
Elected to Maidstone and The Weald in 1987
Resigned from the Tory front bench in 2001
"Her advice shows remarkable common sense, and it's good fun. For someone who is not a family woman [Miss Widdecombe is single], her advice on relationships and children shows a lot of empathy. She has more warmth and empathy than most politicians - and I say that as someone who is not a Tory."
Whereas a counsellor aims to help people to help themselves, the role of an agony aunt is to tell people what to do. So bossiness is key, says Miss Marcus.
"Choice is stressful. In a world where people are bringing up their children to have rights, and the government and opposition bleat on about choice, people want to be told what to do. And by telling people what to do, you are being caring."
And where matronly types also excel is in telling people off. "People want that. They want to be told that they shouldn't have eaten that KitKat; that they live in pigsty; that they have behaved badly."
For chances are that you know that already. It just needs to be reinforced. Now buck up, the lot of you.
Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue will be broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesday, 28 June, at 2030BST.