A few years ago Ann Widdecombe, in confessional mode, would have had to admit to a certain fascination with Michael Portillo, the super-tough man of the right. She told friends, before the 1997 election, that she expected to vote for him as leader – although, in the event, she voted for Kenneth Clarke. But she admired Portillo, who, as secretary of state for defence, had wowed a Conservative Party conference in 1995 by strutting about on stage and declaiming, in the words of the SAS, “who dares wins”.
For Widdecombe, one anecdote, in particular, captured the spirit of the cool, calculating politician: his humiliation of an awkward civil servant in her presence, while the two served at the Department of Employment in the mid-Nineties. Portillo had summoned the eminent civil servant to ask about the criteria for measuring unemployment. The man, who belonged to a quasi-autonomous team, refused to yield to Portillo’s pressure, so the minister picked up the phone and asked for the department’s permanent secretary to come to the meeting to compel the civil servant to comply.
But there has been a cooling-off of her ardour – indeed, six months ago, Widdecombe, now shadow home secretary, told friends that relations between her and Portillo, now shadow chancellor, were “ice cold” and that she suspected Portillo was deliberately refusing her funds for proposed policies.
The recent drugs debate, sparked by Widdecombe’s conference speech and its proposed policy on fines for cannabis users, set a newly libertarian Portillo against the ultra-conservative shadow home secretary. The speech brought to the surface the feud between the two right-wing Tories, whom many see as jockeying to succeed William Hague as leader of the party. It is a feud that has been festering since well before Portillo’s confession of a homosexual past and his subsequent makeover into a “touchy-feely” Conservative.
The bad blood between the two dates back to 1993, when Portillo was chief secretary to the Treasury and Widdecombe was parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department of Social Security. The government had placed VAT on fuel, but had also made it clear that pensioners would be compensated for the extra cost. When Portillo gave an interview saying that the government would not compensate the full amount, but only an average of the extra cost, Widdecombe was sent out to justify the losses that some pensioners would suffer. She found the experience uncomfortable, and did not forget it.
The two managed to stay out of each other’s hair until the following year, when Portillo was put in charge of the Department of Employment, where Widdecombe was minister of state. A dispute arose between Widdecombe and her deputy, Phillip Oppenheim, over who should pilot through the House of Commons the Disability Discrimination Bill 1995, a piece of legislation that put the onus on employers to care for disabled people. The bill had little attraction for Tories – it had earlier been withdrawn under the tutelage of the hapless Nicholas Scott – and when Widdecombe pushed Oppenheim into taking on the job, he protested to Portillo, arguing that Widdecombe “was touchy-feely and a woman”. Portillo came down on Oppenheim’s side, and Widdecombe took through the legislation.
She read Portillo’s decision as further evidence that Portillo disliked her. Widdecombe later went so far as to ask a friend of hers, the Catholic MP David Amess, who was Portillo’s parliamentary private secretary, to intercede, as she felt so remote from the then secretary of state.
The new-look Portillo is anathema to a woman who is happy to be called a social authoritarian, and whose numerous intolerances range from drugs through abortion and on to euthanasia. “I don’t understand this phrase, ‘social tolerance’,” she was reported to have said after this month’s party conference. “We have always been a tolerant party. But if that means we are tolerating anti-social behaviour or making all forms of lifestyle equal and not having a preferred model, then we have never been that sort of party, and we don’t propose to be that sort of party.” The Conservatives’ “preferred model” is formalised heterosexual marriage, which is “preferred” with various perks in their developing campaign platform.
Still, Widdecombe recently suggested that she and Portillo could co-exist in the same party. “If Michael’s vision of Britain was so radically different from mine, then I would have a problem. But there are differences of emphasis – I would not go back to the days when homosexuality was illegal or when you stamped ‘illegitimate’ all over a baby’s head if it was born out of wedlock, but I do want a preferred model, and that is the issue. And as long as you have a preferred model, then you can’t afford things equal validity.” She went on to point to the support for opposition to Section 28 and the support for restoring the married man’s tax allowance as evidence of her party’s belief in “family values”.
Friends of Michael Portillo see Widdecombe’s hard-line stances on private behaviour, such as her absolute opposition to abortion and euthanasia, as exclusivist. One condemned her morbid obsession with abortion, which includes having pictures of aborted foetuses pinned up in her office, as “more American than British”.
They also suspect Widdecombe’s Eurosceptic credentials. She not only voted for Ken Clarke in the leadership elections to replace John Major, but keeps an open mind on membership of the euro. While she has reservations about the loss of sovereignty, she argues that the country could not stay on the sidelines and watch if the new currency survives and is successful over a full economic cycle.
Widdecombe also argues for a tax system that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, and for a respect for the public sector completely foreign to the new-right libertarians, who argue for a small state and low taxation. According to Harriet Harman, the Conservative men in suits regard her as an eccentric whom they can tolerate, and even encourage while she is winning, but whom they will drop without compunction once she starts to look vulnerable.
Widdecombe has been touted as a possible future leader of her party since her remarkable denunciation of Michael Howard as having “something of the night about him”. This dramatic speech in the House, in May 1997, transformed the fortunes of a middle-ranking, and largely obscure, minister. Since then – until the recent humiliation over her proposed cannabis fine – she has enjoyed mostly flattering media attention, as well as immense popularity with grass-roots Tories.
Widdecombe will go on fighting the competition, but the past few weeks have, at the very least, slowed down her bandwagon. It has yet to be seen whether it has also run its course.
Nicholas Kochan is the author of Ann Widdecombe: right from the beginning, published this month by Politico’s (£17.99)