News emerged late yesterday afternoon that another political famous has taken a large step to the right. Ann Widdecombe, a woman so Big-C-Conservative her blood runs blue, announced that she has defected from the Tories to join Nigel Farage on the banks of the Brexit Party: the swampiest breakout group we ever did see.
Widdecombe is a household name for many reasons. She’s known – chronologically – for being a former MP who served as Minister of State, Minister of State for Prisons, as Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Health Secretary under William Hague. Her pudding-bowl haircut was a defining feature of Victoria Wood’s infamous parody of her. In 2002 she graced our TV screens while taking part in Celebrity Fat Club (remember that?) and was the subject of a brilliantly prickly Louis Theroux documentary the same year. I watched, baffled, as in 2007 she spent a week with one of Britain’s most abhorrent criminals, Mick Philpott, who was later found guilty of causing the deaths of five of his own children and one other child after deliberately setting his home alight. He was jailed in 2012. Last year, she was the first “celebrity” to enter the Big Brother house for its 21st inception.
Widdecombe has become somewhat of a pantomime villain (and, lest we forget, she has actually appeared in many pantomimes, notably playing the role of the Evil Queen in Bridlington Spa’s adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 2016). A social outcast seemingly non-existent sex life has long been subjected to unfair speculation and whose skills on Strictly Come Dancing were also… non-existent (Widdecombe spent the longest ever time at the bottom of the leaderboard during her 2010 appearance).
Yet, Widdecombe is not merely a pantomime villain, or a left-footed dancing fool – and we should be vigilant to remember that. In fact, Widdecombe, along with her Brexit Party colleagues, has amassed a catalogue of not only alarming, but dangerous political stances. Just a handful of them include that she was one of five MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act of 2008 (instead, she proffered, any money assigned to tackling climate change should be redirected to support armed services). She has openly called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. While serving as prisons minister, Widdecombe backed a Tory policy which called for pregnant jailed women to be shackled to beds while receiving antenatal care or giving birth; she was considered anti-Semitic for comments made in parliament towards Michael Howard; she is against abortion rights for women.
More: on LGBTQ+ rights she has worked for decades to prevent equality. Some things she opposed while serving as an MP include equal consent for homosexual men, same sex marriage, the repeal of Section 28. Widdecombe has also openly voiced support for “gay cure” therapy and believes that people should have the “freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ couples.
Widdecombe now stands beside the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, and George Galloway – another Celebrity Big Brother contestant who famously spent time in the house pretending to be a cat.
The line-up is predictably depressing to the point of becoming a joke. They are the eccentrics as we see them; political characters playing the oddballs in a game. One Twitter commenter remarked that we couldn’t be sure the Brexit Party isn’t just “another League of Gentleman spoof”. It’s farcical, many say – achingly predictable and a bit of an excuse for an eye-roll.
But there is a reason that these politicians – like Boris Johnson (or BoJo, as he is – tellingly – colloquially named) play on the celebrity of their roles. Their “weird” (though abysmal) entertainment which plays neatly into press headlines becomes the ultimate distraction from their parliamentary actions.
And the purposeful playfulness and joviality and willingness to take part on popular television shows raises their profiles, gains them another type of privilege and redefines them in the eyes of the public not as stuffy politicians with an agenda all of their own, but as goofballs or dancing buffoons or outcasts or anomalies. The more we say describe people like Ann Widdecombe as personalities, in terms of whether we “like” them or not, the less we are thinking about whether we agree with them. As a result, the pithy quickly becomes the powerful.
As the news rolled out that Ann Widdecombe would be standing for the Brexit Party in upcoming MEP elections yesterday, her political rancour quickly rose to the top of Twitter’s agenda. Let’s keep it there – and hope that it’s not forgotten offline, either.