Interview: Ann Widdecombe vs the ‘shrug’

Twittering and blogging MPs believe they’re at the forefront of a new media revolution. Ann Widdecombe believes they’re wasting their time.

By Alex Stevenson

According to her, she’s just proved she’s right.

The former minister wrapped up her participation in a BBC project, the People’s Politician, earlier this week. The idea was to conduct an experiment: would members of the public, disenchanted by politics in the wake of the expenses scandal, come flocking to her door if she embraced these new technologies?

For the last three weeks Ms Widdecombe has been putting the question to the test. In her own words, it “didn’t work”.

“There were two main flaws,” she says. “One is it was being done under huge pressure of time. It wasn’t the Beeb’s fault or mine – an election is coming up. The second thing is I don’t think that you can engage the disengaged that way.”

It appears Ms Widdecombe’s initial fears have been confirmed. She believes difficulties in differentiating between the two main parties – a harder task now than in the days of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot – is partly to blame with the general malaise. Even worse, “they just treat the whole thing with a shrug”. The expenses scandal has left MPs’ collective reputation in the mud. And the amorphous nature of the disinterested means they’re extra difficult to engage.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve been vindicated in that sense because we haven’t got a breakdown of figures,” Ms Widdecombe concludes. “But certainly direct democracy does not appear to have the appeal that some might think it would.”

A closer look at the experiment perhaps reveals its limited extent. Ms Widdecombe, who has been an MP for 22 years, did not spend much quality time engaging in the project. Her blog contains only four updates, one of which announce its opening and another its closure. The only real insight we receive into her life as an MP is the statement she spent “six hours in the chamber in order to make a six-minute speech”.

Ms Widdecombe says it wasn’t “widely read” because her loyal fans flock to her own website. “If they want to go anywhere they go to Widdyweb,” she explains.

Her Twitter account, @widdecombepp, was more successful, attracting nearly 900 followers at its peak. Here we find a total of 14 Tweets, none of which engage in serious political debate. “I gather some of you do not understand why I do not tweet,” she wrote in one entry, before explaining somewhat cryptically: “I have 72,000 constituents.”

Ms Widdecombe’s dalliance with Twitter did not leave her impressed. “It’s a complete thief of time,” she declares. “Yes, we got 895 followers or something, but no actual serious political engagement. It didn’t produce the goods.”

What a disappointment. It is always going to be difficult being an MP when the constituents don’t care about anything much at all.

“I think very straightforwardly people aren’t interested. They’re not interested in direct engagement in politics. You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. That is what I said to the Beeb. I said I can twitter to my heart’s content, but you cannot make people tweet. People are rather bored with us all anyway. I just think it was battering against a brick wall.”

It’s very difficult to be bored with Ms Widdecombe, who has kept the good people of Maidstone and the Weald backing her since the 1980s. Her personal recipe for political success, she explains has simply been to be herself. It’s why people like Boris, or Ken Clarke, so much. “People like a bit of colour occasionally. I do like communicating, but I didn’t communicate by putting up my long, boring speeches. I shared myself with people. That’s what they like.”

So when does the communicating process take place? Not when dealing with individual cases, which Ms Widdecombe says have turned MPs into “glorified social workers”. Gone are the days when members would answer their letters in the Commons library every afternoon. Instead MPs are the first resort, not the last. Forget surgeries, which are filled with nothing but “personal problems”.

Instead the communicating seems to happen by itself. “Unless you have a referendum on every single issue you cannot know whether you are representing the majority of your constituents or not,” Ms Widdecombe says. Experience has taught her when it matters, she gets told. The high-speed rail link is a particularly big issue in her patch, for example. “I don’t have a deep intellectual view as to where the rail link should go. But if my constituents don’t want it in their back yard then neither do I.”

Constant interactivity appears somewhat anathema to Ms Widdecombe, whose sizeable majority of nearly 15,000 must surely act as an anchor, not an incentive, for her to do more. She is critical of Simon Cowell’s plans for a political version of The X Factor, for example, describing his entertainment-driven approach as being “trivial” and excessively “confrontational”. Even Question Time is too audience-driven for her tastes. Any Questions, by contrast, is a “sensible programme” where “proper discussion and dissection” is possible.

Had she won the election to be the next Speaker of the Commons things could have been very different. Ms Widdecombe managed to get through to the second round of voting but was then knocked out, with John Bercow emerging as the eventual winner. He has introduced a number of measures to rouse the public’s interest in the expenses-ravaged Commons. He’s doing “fine”, she says, pressing that because of the “controversy” that surrounded his appointment “people are very, very alert for anything which might be a sign of bias”. This, she says ,will settle down.

Optimism that parliament’s reputation could be rescued after the general election, when one of the biggest new intakes is expected, is not worth pursuing, however. Ms Widdecombe remembers the same thing being said about the 101 Blair babes of 1997.

“It did nothing for parliament at all, other than introduce a vast amount of inexperience,” she remembers.

“I often think some of the great disasters in the City wouldn’t occur if you had more grey hair there. Everything escalates because it hasn’t been seen before. I think Cameron’s wise enough to understand he’s going to need some old guard as well as new blood.”

At least the expenses scandal will finally be over, I suggest. Take a look at the victor of the Norwich North by-election, Tory MP Chloe Smith, and we see a politician who puts the squeaky into squeaky clean. Ms Widdecombe is less than impressed.

“When people say ‘a new start’ I say fine – tell me what this new start is? The idea that if you clean up the expenses system so we aren’t abusing them everybody’s going to suddenly re-engage – nonsense, absolute nonsense!”

At the heart of the problem, she fears, is simply that the public has been disengaging for some time. The next election might see higher turnout “because people want to get rid of the government”, but not because people are fully engaged. The People’s Politician failed for precisely this reason.

“The shrug is the best description,” she says. “People think politics has no impact on them. If you’re talking about re-engagement, don’t just look to a new parliament to do it.” There are no real answers on offer about how to solve the problem, she believes. You could always try Twitter, but don’t expect to see Ms Widdecombe cheering you on.