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.

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser