Sparkling with sequins, hair curled, be-legginged legs flying out from the long silken tassels
of a turquoise dress (albeit a modest one), Ann Widdecombe danced a Charleston last week. Miming a reluctant flapper, she bounce-stepped, flounced and kicked for her dance partner and teacher Anton du Beke.
The judges gave her a drubbing for the performance. One said she had spent more time on her backside than performing the dance routine.
For the last six weeks, the retired politician has been delighting (and appalling some) television audiences with her performances in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, a television show on which contestants learn to master the art of dancing.
Miss Widdecombe has flown through the air in a harness before dancing the tango, and has tripped and skipped her way through the quickstep gamely. She has defied the bookmakers who expected her to be voted off the programme after the first or second airing. And even the normally serious Guardian has hosted a discussion on whether the former Conservative Member of Parliament is in danger of becoming a national treasure.
In the midst of the media circus for Strictly Come Dancing and the gruelling eight-hour-long dance practices three days per week, Miss Widdecombe has found time to honour commitments she made long before joining the programme.
Next Thursday she is likely be sequin-less at the Royal Overseas Club as she reverts to her serious self to defend the rights of the unborn as guest of honour and the lead speaker at the annual Right to Life dinner. She will be accompanied by former colleagues from the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, including its chairman, the Labour MP Jim Dobbin. The money raised by the dinner will be used to pay for a clerk for the parliamentary group.
Miss Widdecombe has been involved with the charity since hosting its launch in 2006. She was a staunch defender of life, from conception to natural death, during her years in Parliament as a Tory MP for Maidstone and the Weald.
Last year she told interviewers that her devotion to the pro-life cause preceded her Catholicism. It is a position she has held consistently from her Oxford days, in agnostic phases and when she was a member of the Church of England.
She says that she will talk about the themes she has always talked about, the “utter defencelessness of unborn human life” and the need for parliamentarians to work for the protection of the unborn. Her speech is expected to explore the challenges facing the pro-life movement in a Europe.
A seasoned and colourful politician, who served as a controversial Prisons Minister in John Major’s Government, she surprised the media in October 2007 when she announced that she would not run for office again. Before this year’s General Election, the devout and outspoken Catholic convert was touted as the next British Ambassador to the Holy See, destined to fill the brogues of Francis Campbell. But she turned the post down for health reasons. Instead, she announced that she would take part in the dance programme, a decision for which was met with dismay by people who viewed her as a serious political figure and with ridicule by the tabloid press. She has taken it all in her stride.
“I am thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. It gives me immense pleasure to do something without responsibility like Strictly,” she says. “It’s jolly fun and a real relief after these last few decades in which every decision I’ve taken has had the potential to affect people. From the individual cases to decisions about policies, everything I’ve done in the last 23 years has potentially affected people. Now the only thing that I have to worry about is not tripping over, and then kicking Anton in the feet.”
For years Miss Widdecombe fought to be a serious face in British politics, from her student years at Lady Margaret Hall when she was secretary and treasurer of the Oxford Union and a committee member of the Oxford University Conservative Association to her 1987 election to Parliament. She went from the Foreign Office to the Department of Employment to the Home Office. But after Labour came into power in 1997 Miss Widdecombe began embracing the media, inhabiting that grey world where politicians and journalists meet. Among other media appearances before Strictly, she took part in a reality television programme called Celebrity Fit Club in 2002 and in 2005 acted as a television agony aunt on the Widdecombe Project, aired on BBC Two. She also guest hosted Have I Got News For You twice and had a column in the Guardian.
Brusque, uncompromising, unafraid to speak her mind, Miss Widdecombe was a target for criticism from both the media and fellow politicians. Since her conversion in 1993 (after receiving instruction from Fr Michael Seed), Miss Widdecombe has been a public Catholic, open about her faith in both Parliament and in the press. She has appeared in television programmes about the history of Christianity and fought the formidable Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry in a public debate about the Catholic Church earlier this year. In Parliament Miss Widdecombe worked across parties against the many dubious aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and fought tirelessly to toughen up Britain’s abortion laws.
Over the years she developed an ability to shrug off some of the more vicious criticism, which has served her well during her stint at Strictly Come Dancing. She laughs off cutting comments from the judges, who have compared her to hippopotamus. Has the experience been a bit of a holiday for her?
“A lot of people have said: ‘Ann, you’re losing your serious image because of Strictly.’ And I try to tell them: ‘Hang on folks, I’ve retired. I can have fun now.’”
Does she find the schedule exhausting, what with the engagements she’s got? The three days, she says, during which she practises from 10am to 6pm are enough to get her to a routine level. “If I were a virtuoso dancer I would probably be dancing five days per week,” she says.
Miss Widdecombe does not expect to win the competition. But she has done better than many anticipated. Despite all the practice she is unlikely to become virtuoso dancer. Her performance last Saturday received the lowest scores and yet she was not voted off the show. She has charmed the British public with her sense of humour and quick wit. She has also shown them something that those who have followed her political career knew all along: she is courageous in the face of adversity.
For tickets to the Right to Life dinner on November 25 in London email [email protected] or call 020 8992 7657