Strictly or the Vatican?

Ann Widdecombe must choose between the reality show and becoming Britain’s ambassador to the Vatican

Ann Widdecombe, who has been strongly tipped to be named the next British ambassador to the Vatican, has signed up to star in the new series of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, according to the Daily Mail.

Francis Campbell, the current ambassador, announced last year that he would step down after the Pope's visit to Britain in mid-September.

Although there has been no official announcment of Widdecombe's appointment, she has been seen as the likely front-runner, because her candidacy was endorsed by William Hague last month.

It has been suggested that this strong support from the Tories is prompted by political expediency, as a move to the Vatican would remove an outspoken critic of David Cameron from the Westminster scene. She is, however, a long-time ally of Hague, who appointed her shadow home secretary during his tenure as Tory leader.

If appointed, she would be the first Roman Catholic woman to hold the post, following her conversion in 1993 after the Church of England began the ordination of women priests. She had a private audience with the previous pope after her conversion.

However, the schedule of the BBC reality show, which will run for 12 weeks starting in September, could interfere with any potential appointment, especially if Widdecombe were to progress to the latter stages of the competition, suggesting that she plans to drop out closer to the time if appointed. As ambassador, she would likely have some role during the Pope's visit, as the incumbent, Francis Campbell, has announced that the Pope's visit will be his final duty.

So far, the BBC has announced only four of the 12 celebrity contestants for the show. Widdecombe's signing at this early stage sends a confused message about any potential association with the Vatican post. Is she seeking to raise her profile so as to garner greater publicity for her eventual appointment, or does she know she has been dropped from consideration and could thus commit to the whole run of the show? Either way, joining the programme so early on is a baffling move.

In this week's special secularism issue of the New Statesman, she speaks to Alyssa McDonald about rumours that she will be Britain's new envoy to the Vatican, saying:

That is pure speculation from the press. Your profession loves speculation.

Later on in the interview, when asked about her future plans, she remains stubbornly noncommittal, telling Alyssa: "Good try, but I'm not being drawn."

Given her refusal to comment on her candidacy, the decision to join Strictly Come Dancing is decidedly odd, as it seems to be her first real positive statement on the subject. What exactly it shows, though, is a matter for speculation.

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Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.