It takes a childless woman to think of fines for cannabis

It is not what you have, but what you don't have, that makes you stumble as a politician. Gordon Brown doesn't have a car, so he doesn't understand why a rise in fuel taxes will have people baying for his blood. Tony Blair doesn't have an aged guru amidst his entourage (the one he had, Roy Jenkins, has fallen out with him) so he doesn't take into account the way his pension scheme enrages the elderly. And Ann Widdecombe has no children, and thus comes up with a fine for the possession of even a minute bit of cannabis, a proposal that no one with a smidgeon of knowledge about youth culture could think of.

Widdecombe's climbdown was public and immediate: eight of her colleagues confessed to having smoked marijuana in their youth - and Ann, as well as her leader, was forced to drop the proposal for a fixed and automatic fine.

In mounting their campaign against Widdecombe, the other shadow ministers claimed they were not ageing dope fiends but merely defenders of the consultative process: Ann had not alerted anyone about the content of her speech at Bournemouth. It wasn't difficult to see, though, that the men had been dying for their chance to cut the big woman down to size.

Poor Ann. She was just being true to herself, as she has always been: a battleaxe of traditionalist values, a one-woman crusade against trendy Hampstead liberals (the same betes noires that her counterpart Jack Straw despises), a scourge on the sneaky little men who backstab and slime their way to the top. Package this strident spinster in a boxy figure, severe pageboy haircut and wildly gesticulating arms, and you can see why the grande dame is the darling of grass-roots Tories who still get misty eyed about Nanny - and why she intimidates her colleagues. The very childlessness that endears her to the grass roots is suspect among the party top brass.

A woman politician without kids to rush home to, without kids to love and be loved by, terrifies her colleagues. You can see why: Ann channels her gargantuan energy and her mother love on her people. They, in turn, bask in her affection and attention, love the way they are at the centre of her universe, and feel confident that their every concern is hers. Unlike those other Westminster inmates, who seem disconnected from their electorate, Widdecombe smothers her constituents, the voters and just about any Tory in the land with mother love. Watch her on a walkabout, as she presses flesh; listen to her at a conference, as she pushes all the right emotive buttons: this woman plays to the gallery because the gallery is where her heart is.

It's just the same as that other childless politician, Mo Mowlam. Although no two dames could be more different, the Daily Telegraph reports that when members of the public were shown a photo of Widdecombe, six of them thought it was Mo Mowlam. The pot smoker and the pot hater have both given over their child-free lives to their careers. They are both big mamas to the little people; and their devotion has been rewarded with a popularity that earns them the distrust of their married colleagues.

It is these colleagues who brief against Ann and Mo, sidelining them within their cabinets, trying to embarrass them in public with charges of being from another planet, in Ann's case, and out of her mind, in Mo's. In the end, her colleagues forced Mo to change her career; they may succeed in doing the same with Ann. Both would no doubt land a plum job: in other professions, the child-free woman is regarded as an ambitious workhorse, on whom the rest of the staff can rely, the one who will put in the long hours and never, ever come in late because of a child's dentist appointment or a toddler's flu.

In other careers, it seems, devotion and dedication to the job are rewarded: in Westminster, they are suspect. They throw light, after all, on the dearth of it among the stuffed shirts and dry sticks whose sense of family is restricted to the one they leave back home.

This article first appeared in the 16 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Woolf