Magazine article The Spectator

Ann Widdecombe Is Arrogant and Wrong, but the Blame for the Big Gaffe Lies with Mr Hague

Magazine article The Spectator

Ann Widdecombe Is Arrogant and Wrong, but the Blame for the Big Gaffe Lies with Mr Hague

Article excerpt

During the Major government, Ann Widdecombe and Oliver Henley were junior ministers in the same department. On one occasion, Miss Widdecombe's conduct led Lord Henley to raise an eyebrow. He heard one of her civil servants call her 'Ann' rather than 'Minister'. Noticing his surprise, Miss Widdecombe rounded on him. `But Oliver, God calls me Ann. What does God call you, Oliver?' `In the unlikely event of the Almighty addressing me, I assume that he'd call me Lord Henley.'

That illustrates one of the difficulties of dealing with Ann Widdecombe. Someone who believes she is in constant contact with her Maker is unlikely to take orders from the Chief Whip. Since then, her confidence has been further boosted by her apparent popularity. A direct link to public opinion and to God: a lot there to confirm a lonely spinster in her simple moral certainties.

She has never been a team player or an easy colleague. During the dispute over the sacking of Derek Lewis, the then director of prisons, she ignored collective responsibility and made life as awkward as possible for her boss, Michael Howard. Such was her behaviour that she, too, deserved to be sacked, and might well have been but for the government's weakness. Despite her moral image, Miss Widdecombe is capable of unscrupulousness. There is no more honourable man in public life than Michael Howard, and it was absurd to describe him as having something of the night about him. But she wanted revene.

Ann Widdecombe is also socially awkward. Almost all members of the shadow Cabinet feel more at ease in one another's company than they do in hers. All this helps to explain her colleagues' reluctance to come to her rescue over the past few days. When a politician runs into trouble, it is useful to be able to draw on a capital of friendship; Ann Widdecombe has no such resource. Contrary to some reports, there was no plot against her, but many of her colleagues were exasperated at being bounced into trouble, and without consultation. `This was never discussed in shadow Cabinet' was a constant complaint in Bournemouth last week.

So Miss Widdecombe got no support, only blame. But that was unfair. The drugs imbroglio was not her fault; it was William Hague's. She may have wanted to make a foolish proposal; it was he, or his office, who should have prevented her.

The problem goes back to the beginning of the Hague leadership. At that time, a number of Tory MPs believed that in order to regain its identity, the party ought to work out what it believed in a wide-ranging intellectual debate. One of Mr Hague's oldest political friends, Alan Duncan, was prominent in expressing that view, and wrote a book, Saturn's Children, which was intended to be a contribution to the debate. It included a chapter on drugs. After analysing the global failure of prohibition, he came out in favour of legalisation.

But Mr Duncan's advice was not taken, on debating or on drugs. Indeed, he was persuaded to remove the drugs chapter from the paperback edition. (It is now circulating in samizdat form among the membership of Conservative Future, as the Young Conservatives are now known: further evidence that prohibition does not work.)

One can understand the reluctance to throw the party open to fundamental intellectual argument. In view of the Tory party's recent history, the leadership could be forgiven for concluding that the last thing it needed was more debate, and that it was time to bring back the traditional Tory strengths: discipline, loyalty and a strong Whips' office. …

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