Ann Widdecombe rules out Vatican appointment

The former government minister turns down the post, citing a detached retina, and heads for Strictly

Ann Widdecombe has turned down the post of UK ambassador to the Vatican because of a detached retina, she told the Times this weekend.

As I blogged a little over a week ago, doubt had been cast on her chances of succeeding Francis Campbell in the post after she signed up to appear in the autumn series of the BBC's reality show Strictly Come Dancing.

Now, she has told the Times that she was unable to take the post because of an operation to repair a detached retina. However, it seems clear that she was made a definite offer, and that she regrets being obliged to turn it down. She said:

The good reason is that I have just had an operation for a detached retina. I am very sorry about Rome. I would have gone otherwise.

However, in the same interview, the Times reports that she dismissed the Strictly claims as "rumour and speculation", which seems to run counter to the Daily Mail, which reported several weeks ago that she had been confirmed to appear on the show.

Another likely candidate for the Vatican post, Chris Patten, has not yet been offered the job, but Times sources suggest he is unlikely to accept because of his duties as chancellor of Oxford University.

Other reputed candidates are Paul Murphy, the former Northern Ireland secretary, and Ruth Kelly, rumoured to be a member of Opus Dei. Given Widdecombe's popularity on both sides, it will take something special to equal the momentum she had. But the BBC's William Crawley believes he's found it -- how about Tony Blair?

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.