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.

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy