We could all forget about Ann Widdecombe for the past nine years while she was doing Strictly Come Dancing and panto and Celebrity Big Brother and the rest. But now she has risen from the political grave to become a Brexit MEP. Tragically, it has meant cancelling her Christmas panto booking as Chop Suey in Aladdin, which she was hugely looking forward to, but ‘Duty didn’t just call,’ she says, ‘it positively howled.’ So now she is playing Chop Suey to Nigel Farage’s Aladdin.
They certainly made an eye-catching entrance to their first plenary session in Strasbourg, turning their backs on parliament while the ‘Ode to Joy’ was played. And then Widdecombe delivered her great tirade about how Britain leaving the EU was like ‘people turning on their oppressors — slaves against their owners’. She spoke entirely off the cuff (‘It was only 90 minutes, Lynn’) and concluded ‘Nous allons. Wir gehen. We’re off!’ She told me she received many messages of congratulation afterwards and was entirely delighted with her Strasbourg debut.
In Strasbourg she stayed in a convent guest house, but I met her at her hilltop home in Devon, which is a sort of temple to self-love called Widdecombe’s Rest, near the (sadly misspelt) village of Widecombe. The house is mainly decorated with cartoons and photographs of Widdecombe — as an Oxford undergraduate (genuinely dishy in those days), as a young MP, as a cabinet minister, collecting her OBE and CB, and meeting the Pope. There is also a big chocolate-box portrait of a delicate blonde that you could look at for a million years without ever guessing it was Ann Widdecombe, but she claims she sat for it on a cruise a few years ago.
Cruises are clearly significant — it was on a lecture cruise round Norway in April that she decided to stand as a Brexit MEP. ‘I always joke that I crossed my Rubicon while standing by a fjord.’ She’d been getting increasingly fed up with parliament’s failure to implement the referendum and writing about it in her Daily Express column but then she decided: ‘I can sit in an armchair and criticise for ever, or I can actually do something. So I took out my mobile and phoned Farage and said “Can I come?”. He was delighted of course.’
But it was only days before the close of nominations so someone from Brexit HQ had to come with her nomination papers and meet her off her cruise ship at the docks. She didn’t actually have a meeting with Farage until a few days later but really, she says, there was nothing to discuss because they are totally united in wanting to achieve Brexit.
What about his funding? Did she ask about that? ‘No I didn’t ask him about that. The electoral commission has looked into our funding and they found nothing suspicious at all.’ (Though according to the Guardian, they have asked the Brexit party to review all its donations to make sure they come from permissible sources.) Had she followed Farage’s previous career? ‘Not closely, but I think he has been one of the most effective politicians of this century, in that he achieved the thing he set out to achieve. We had the referendum, it came out with a decision, and both parties were pledged to implement that decision and they haven’t done so. They’ve made an unholy mess of it. I said, and I meant, that Theresa May was the worst PM since Anthony Eden, that Jeremy Corbyn is the worst leader of the opposition, and that this is the worst parliament since Oliver Cromwell.’
She claims that she was reluctant to get back into the political fray because she was so much enjoying her retirement. ‘I was doing pantomime, I was doing lecture cruises, I was going round addressing little local things like Women’s Institutes and I really thought that was going to be my life from now on. So this has been a bit of a rude shock. But it was a necessary act.’ And presumably, as an MEP, she’s earning more? ‘No! Last year I did Big Brother! And what I get for panto would cover nearly three months of an MEP’s salary. But that doesn’t matter, it really isn’t about money at all.’
Her showbiz career started in 2010 when she resigned as an MP. She hoped that David Cameron would send her to the Lords, but he didn’t. Instead, he offered her the post of ambassador to the Holy See. But by then she’d signed her contract with Strictly Come Dancing. They’d been asking her every year for four years but she felt she couldn’t do it while she was still an MP. Amazingly, the Vatican was willing to wait, so she prayed to God to send her a sign and he sent her a detached retina, which meant she had to be within three hours of Moorfields Eye Hospital at all times. Luckily, the detached retina did not prevent her doing Strictly, and then going on the Strictly live tour, and doing panto and the rest. ‘People said: “You can’t do that, you’ll lose your gravitas.” But I said: “What do I want gravitas for, now I’m no longer an MP?”’
Quite — except she seems to think she might be an MP again. She believes Brexit will be achieved eventually but not by 31 October — she says Farage’s favourite joke is ‘Halloween — trick or treat?’. So then there will be a general election, in which she will stand as a Brexit MP. ‘I shall stay with the Brexit party as long as there is a Brexit party. We’re selecting candidates and working on our policies now. And we’ve had several thousand applicants and Nigel is being mighty careful with the vetting. There’s a long list of proscribed organisations that you have to sign that you’ve never belonged to, and it is very thorough. Of course all parties have their oddballs, but I don’t think it will be a problem as it was for Ukip.’ But what is the point of a Brexit party, once Brexit is achieved? ‘Oh I think this time the issue is much bigger. It’s gone from Brexit to the whole issue of democracy. I’m expecting us to be around for quite a while.’
And when she is back at Westminster, she says she will make freedom of speech one of her campaigns. This is because she was subject to a great no-platforming furore a few weeks ago when she said on Sky News that science ‘might provide an answer’ to being gay. There was the predictable Twitter storm, with Stephen Fry asking if science might provide an answer to Ann Widdecombe. A few theatres cancelled their bookings for her one-woman show, but she says gleefully that other, better venues promptly booked her for the cancelled dates.
But anyway, she claims, her remarks were taken out of context. ‘This is where I get so annoyed. What I actually said was that whereas we once assumed that it was impossible for a man to become a woman or vice versa, it might one day be possible for people to transition sexuality, that’s all. I didn’t say it might provide a cure for homosexuality. I never said any such thing.’
No, but she did, in 2012, write a column in defence of so-called gay conversion therapy. The constant message seems to be that gays should want to be straight. ‘I’m not going to go into this again, because it’s a distraction. All I said was “Why isn’t someone who wants to make that transition going to be allowed to?” That’s all. But anything you write will be distorted in the retelling.’
Does she have any gay friends? ‘Oh Lynn! If I may say so — and I wouldn’t normally say this — that is a very stupid question. How do you function in society if you haven’t got friends who are black, white, straight, gay, young and old?’
Mmm — but if I were gay, I’m not sure I would want to be friends with Ann Widdecombe. ‘Well how come so many of them are?’ Perhaps because they see her as a fellow showbiz trouper? ‘No, in private life as well. I have lots of gay friends. To me, it’s not an issue. It appears to be an issue for every-body else. I should not have agreed to do this interview if I had thought it was going to be about my moral views. We’re meant to be talking about Brexit.’
By now, she has lashed herself into such a fury it reminds me of the time I was attacked by an angry moorhen in Hampstead ladies’ pond. So, back to Brexit. Does she believe Boris can deliver it? ‘I certainly believe he’ll try but I wouldn’t put money on him succeeding. Organisationally he is seriously shambolic, but that doesn’t actually matter, because once he becomes PM he’ll have people round him to make sure he gets to the right place at the right time with the right papers. He is charismatic. And people like him. He cheers them up no end and Theresa May never cheered anyone up. Nor does Corbyn.’
Does Boris’s messy private life matter? ‘Well, Corbyn hasn’t had an immaculate private life either. He hasn’t had one wife all his life. It doesn’t please me, obviously, but you could look a very long way to find an immaculate private life in British politics.’
What about if Farage turns out to have a string of mistresses? ‘Well, again, I’m with Farage for one reason: I want Brexit. And miracles may yet happen and we may yet get a clean Brexit.’ In which case, perhaps she could abandon her dreams of returning to Westminster and sign up for another panto? Come back, Chop Suey, come back!