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Friday, 7 January, 2000, 12:01 GMT
The rise of the virgin politician

Widdecombe The Tory frontbencher is also an author

The shadow home secretary is among the Conservative Party's star performers.

At her high points, such as at the Tory Party conference, commentators hail her as a potential future leader although she has recently said she would be willing to leave politics to look after her elderly mother.

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

Catholic convert

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.")

Having decided she wanted to become a politician aged 14, Miss Widdecombe studied first Latin at Birmingham University and then politics at Oxford.

Howard Michael Howard: "Something of the night"
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 while at the Home Office as prisons minister that she first came to the public's attention for defending the controversial policy of handcuffing female prisoners to their beds while they gave birth.

But her she was really elevated into the wider public consciousness by events following Labour's victory in the 1997 election.

Direct obstacle

After Mr Major made a quick exit from the Tory leadership, she positioned herself as a direct obstacle in the path Mr Howard saw himself following to become leader.

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 her powerful performance even there, brought her to the attention of the eventual winner of the leadership contest, William Hague, who decided to give her the key job of shadow health secretary.

Hague William Hague brough Miss Widdecombe back to the frontbenches
She described that promotion to BBC News Online: "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.

"I asked the immortal question: 'Is it something important?' They very kindly rescheduled it - and yes it was important!"

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 the then Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam at Labour's annual bash.

Widdecombe Miss Widdecombe did what "comes fairly natural"
Miss Widdecombe said of that performance: "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.

"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."

Her own personal rituals also seem to underline her suitability for the post of shadow health secretary.

During last year's health service crisis both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr Hague visited hospitals recently - something Miss Widdecombe has apparently been doing it for years.

As home secretary, she has made political capital out of the chaos at the Passport Agency, the increase immigration figures and police numbers.

Miss Widdecombe must have disappointed supporters when she suggested she would leave politics to care for her mother.

But it would not be the first time she has changed her lifestyle for her mother, having purchased her first television when her elderly parent came to live with her last year.

Miss Widdecombe also has a promising writing career ahead of her.

She has secured a 100,000 advance for her first novel, which according to her publisher, reads "as though she has been writing all her life".

The Clematis Tree tells the tale of tensions within a family raising a severely handicapped child as a controversial Euthanasia Bill passes through Parliament.

She has already begun work on a second novel, set in World War II France.
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See also:
07 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Widdecombe: Why I might quit politics

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