An oddball. And proud to be one. Ann Widdecombe has sailed through life with the same brisk, no-nonsense style that she brings to this highly readable memoir. She attended a school where God was taught ‘as a fact not a belief’. Her parents encouraged her to choose friends on the basis of ‘fun and kindness’ and nothing else. When she entered parliament in 1987 she suspected that her personal eccentricities would disbar her from high office while guaranteeing the loyal affection of the country at large. She embraced this fate cheerfully. Her ‘Doris Karloff’ tag was originated by the Labour MP Paul Flynn and she instantly adopted it as a personal signature. Having briefed a lobby correspondent over the telephone she would finish with, ‘That’s it. Karloff has spoken.’
While serving as a junior minister at the Home Office she was involved in an extraordinary lunchtime ‘contretemps’ with Frank Longford, a supporter of Myra Hindley, and Longford’s daughter, Lady Antonia Fraser. Widdecombe mentioned that she had declined to meet Hindley during a recent jail visit and Longford was predictably outraged. When Lady Antonia leapt to Widdecombe’s defence, Longford ‘launched into a tirade’ and accused his daughter of being no better than Hindley, ‘because she had left her husband’. Widdecombe continues, ‘I struggled to equate adultery with the murder of five innocent children.’ But she adds this ironic concession. ‘Theologically, Frank was doubtless right, as all sins offend Infinite Goodness.’
Occasionally one detects traces of megalomania. She never fails to record a successful speech or a minor policy victory, and she strays too readily into self-admiring guff like this: ‘In 2006 I had a highly successful appearance as chairman of Have I Got News For You and was invited back again in 2007.’ She calls David Cameron ‘big-headed’ and ‘pig-headed’ and she claims that at the 2005 Tory conference, ‘he took a leaf from my book by walking about without notes’.
During an official visit to Rome she applied to meet Pope John Paul II. To her amazement she was granted a 20-minute private audience, ‘an allocation normally reserved for heads of state’. The Pope spoke immaculate English, she says, and the conversation, ‘led by him’, ranged over many subjects. I love that ‘led by him’. How many of us would feel it remarkable that we accepted second place while meeting Christ’s vicar on earth?
Only the most avid students of the Major government will appreciate all the details of Widdecombe’s long feud with the home secretary, Michael Howard, over the sacking of Derek Lewis, the head of the prison service. Widdecombe reports the events in a crisp and engaging style and she must be aware that her portrait of Howard will undermine his reputation. Furtive, panicky and devious when under pressure, Howard was apt to become ‘triumphant, gloating’ and ‘vindictive’ when events moved his way. Her famous summary of his character, ‘something of the night’, was handled with her customary thoroughness. Before publicising the phrase she road-tested it in private to ensure that it would have the desired effect. It did. Ever since, satirists have likened Howard to emissaries of the fore-dawn.
She includes an item of gossip that reveals Howard’s woeful grasp of Catholic doctrine. She says that he once tried to put pressure on Cardinal Basil Hume to persuade Catholic priests to betray the trust of the confessional and to reveal to the authorities admissions of murder made by IRA terrorists. Of course, any Catholic priest would die sooner than obey such an order. And Hume would have died sooner than issue it. Widdecombe attempts to soften her attack on Howard in the final chapters by praising him as a politician she would gladly ‘serve in the trenches and the jungle with’. But she can’t help adding a dash of acid: ‘If the battle went wrong he would immediately be looking for someone to court martial and shoot, or perhaps just shoot.’
Publishers know that the sales of political memoirs depend entirely on the author’s popularity. This explains why Alan Johnson’s autobiography has risen skywards while poor old David Blunkett’s performed a bellyflop. Widdecombe’s ripping tale will follow the flightpath of the former.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 June 2013Tags: Ann Widdecombe, Autobiography, Book review, Doris Karloff, Lady Antonia Fraser, Lord Longford, Michael Howard, Myra Hindley, Pope John Paul II