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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 12:32 GMT
Ann Widdecombe: Home Affairs

Mark Mardell

A compact bundle of energy in a tartan twin-set, Ann Widdecombe tours TV and radio studios giving vent to instinctive Conservative ire on subjects dear to many Tory hearts: the increase in crime and the failure of justice.

The newspapers call her "Doris Karloff" and no male politician would have to put up with such abuse on the basis of their appearance alone.

But the image is reinforced by her strict beliefs, which can seem alien in a world that is relaxed about personal morality.

Difficult year

She is usually clever enough to use her caricature to project her politics.

Some would like to see her leader... Many Tory MPs would die in the ditch to stop that happening

But this last year she came badly unstuck partly through over-confidence.

Her religion is central to her being and her politics. For many years a devout High Anglican, in 1993 she became a Roman Catholic because of the Church of England's decision to ordain women priests.

Ann Widdecombe's strong religious beliefs are well-known
Ann Widdecombe's strong religious beliefs are well-known
She has never married but since her 88-year-old mother moved in with her she has acquired a television for the first time.

A further caricature damaged her as prisons minister. She was widely blamed for women prisoners giving birth in chains.

Most unfairly, as no such thing happened while she was at the Home Office and it was not her policy. But mud sticks and it added to a harsh image.

But it was also during this period that she grew to distrust Home Secretary Michael Howard.

In particular she was deeply upset by the way he handled the resignation of Derek Lewis, the head of the prison service.

She strode about the stage, without notes let alone a teleprompter, sounding tough and, as usual, the faithful swooned

During the battle for the Conservative leadership that followed Labour's election victory, she said Mr Howard had "something of the night" about him.

She has been a largely effective shadow home secretary, attacking Jack Straw particularly on the question of police numbers. But her performance at last year's party conference nearly broke her.

The Conservative Party Conference 2000
The Conservative Party Conference 2000
Both Labour and Tory politicians have a record of using words loosely and hyping ill-thought-out proposals, particularly on the conference platform, but she was the one finally collared by the logic police.

As usual she strode about the stage, without notes let alone a teleprompter, sounding tough and, as usual, the faithful swooned.

Drugs speech backfires

Her policy of zero tolerance towards all drugs proposed fines of 100 for anyone found using or carrying even the smallest amounts of cannabis.

The Shadow Home Secretary's zero-tolerance policy on drugs backfired
The shadow home secretary's zero-tolerance policy on drugs backfired
The police denounced it. More liberal Conservatives denounced it. The media were incredulous.

She was bewildered and hurt by what she clearly regarded as her abandonment by colleagues.

She felt worse after the weekend when half the shadow cabinet admitted to smoking cannabis in their youth.

It looked like a concerted effort to undermine her and make her look out of touch.

Even if it was not quite that well planned, they were not disappointed that it had that effect.

Miss Widdecombe has a softer side. As befits her Christianity she has gone out of her way to show kindness to MPs who are in trouble and she is a firm believer not just in punishment but in rehabilitation.

Some would like to see her leader if there is ever a contest. Many Tory MPs would die in the ditch to stop that happening.



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