Greasy Pole: Re-Inventing the Losers

One year after That Election, the wretched group who are no longer entitled to be known as Honourable Members Of The Most Exclusive Club In The Land have had time to adjust to their new, cruel reality. Time to accept that they are no longer waved through a doorway by a smiling policeman. To bravely suffer an unaccustomed lack of interest in them by the media. To contemplate a life made unbearable without the weekly session of verbal hooliganism called Prime Minister’s Questions. To manage their homes, gardens and the like without support from a self-designed, self-regulated expenses system. To re-invent themselves in a new, bitterly unforeseen image reminding them of those other, unexciting people who voted for them to manipulate their lives in the name of democracy, justice, equity…

Some of these victims of the voters’ verdict will have clearly had difficulty in rebuilding their self-esteem but this has not been so for Ann Widdecombe, because she slipped away from Westminster without waiting for an election. Which is not to say that her re-invention has been any less grotesque. Widdecombe sat for Maidstone, later Maidstone and The Weald; before that she had tried for the candidature in Burnley and Plymouth Devenport. During the Thatcher governments she was, famously, Minister of State for Prisons under Home Secretary Michael Howard. She quickly assured herself of a welcome from the more apoplectic of the Tory rank and file by calling for zero tolerance for cannabis users, opposition to equal rights for gays and defending the policy of shackling pregnant women prisoners when they were in hospital. More controversially, in the Tory leadership election of 1997 she denounced Michael Howard as having “something of the night” about him. Her meaning was not entirely clear but she provided a lot of material for cartoonists eager to depict Howard as a sort of vampire – which may have helped towards him coming last in the contest.

In fact Widdecombe herself had something of a bumpy relationship with the post of Party Leader; having failed in 2001 to raise enough support among MPs for her own bid she switched her support to a succession of other failures – Michael Ancram (Michael Who?), Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, David Davis. When David Cameron, as the new Leader, was keen to prove his credentials as a new broom or breath of fresh air or whatever, announced a more equal “A List” of parliamentary candidates she opposed this as “an insult to women”. Having at first declared, in October 2007, that she would leave the Commons at the next election she soon experienced so dramatic a change of mind that she allowed herself to stand for Speaker of the House in the vote to replace the serially unpopular and questionable Michael Martin. Eventually, to widespread relief, she did retire at the 2010 election, selling her homes in London and Kent and moving to a house on Dartmoor.

So – after all the strident hard-lines, diversions, backtracking…there was clearly some need for Widdecombe to demonstrate that there was another person, a reinvention of the MP, within her. Much of that person has, disconcertingly for those who admired her for being above earning any money in such a way, sprouted in the media – where they obviously can recognise a good profitable thing when they see it. She has been an agony aunt in the Guardian (which must have caused some hiccups at many a suburban breakfast table) and for both BBC television (Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue) and ITV. She took part in Celebratory Fit Club as both a competitor and a judge and she is a columnist in the Daily Express. But the height – or should it be the depth – of all this, in terms of her exposure and the public response, was on the hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing. The news that she was to be a contestant in this programme provoked much ribaldry in many a saloon bar, on the theme of speculating about which male partner would be patient and strong enough to twirl someone of her build around the dance floor. To prolong the amusement there were enough viewers, perhaps of the same cussedness as Widdecombe herself had relied on to get her through her career, to repeatedly vote against the judges to keep her dancing. Until December that is, when matters got rather serious and, shrinking from the prospect of voting her into the final, they ended it all.

But it does not follow that her re-invention is at an end; that she will sink quietly from sight. She can be engaged for some kind of public appearance through the Gordon Poole Agency and Talent Bureau – who will gladly let you know how available she is for whatever exposure you have in mind and what it will cost you. For the right sort of money she may even tell you what she thinks of it all now, of her devoted preparations for a political career, her change from being an agnostic to a Roman catholic, her hopes of becoming leader of her party and then of the House of Commons itself. It does not make a pretty story.

But the capitalist system with its contradictions its anarchy its impoverishment and diseases is not pretty. The spectacle of cynical politicians presenting themselves in what they hope will be the most effectively deceptive way is stunningly ugly. And if Widdecombe ever gets to reflect on her political career, driven as it was by her abrasive eccentricity and dogged ambition, she might devote a word or two on how it all says as depressingly much about those who were captivated by her as about herself.


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