WIDDY

This may be my favourite election sketch of all time: I had no idea what to expect when I asked to spend a day campaigning with Ann Widdecombe, Tory maverick, romantic novelist, and subsequent darling of reality TV. I can remember writing it, bedraggled and somewhat stunned, hunched over a tiny table in the coffee shop of a big supermarket in Maidstone and wondering if I would ever again be warm.

 

Widdecombe has no truck with wets in her Popemobile

From The Times

26 April 2005

THE rain was sheeting down in Maidstone yesterday. I was there to spend the day with Ann Widdecombe, Celebrity Fit Club judge and Conservative phenomenon, campaigning in something that she calls her Popemobile.

I envisaged this to be a golf-cart type affair. It would be cute and blue and, crucially, it would have a roof. When I arrived at the blue door that opens into the blue room that is the Maidstone & the Weald Conservative Association, a very strange object was parked outside. It was a Mitsubishi flat-bed truck. The back had been turned into some kind of platform, with a large plywood box that was plastered with “Vote Widdecombe” signs and festooned with bright blue balloons. Even then I didn’t realise what I was looking at.

“Doesn’t Ann have a Popemobile?” I asked a man holding a bunch of balloons.

“That’s it!” he said. “I hope you’ve brought a hat!”

I looked outside. The water was running down the gutters like a small river. I didn’t need a hat. I needed a wetsuit.

Ann bustled into the room (which featured, by the way, a picture of her with a very large cow). I gestured, somewhat weakly it must be said, at the truck. “How do you stay dry?” I asked. She looked at me oddly, whipped a cagoule over her suit, and said briskly: “We don’t do dry in this constituency.”

Within minutes, we had clambered on to the back of the truck. We stood up behind the cab in the box which, I now saw, was held together with a few wonky hooks. “Don’t lean on it!” barked Ann, “or you’ll be in trouble!”

The box was wired for sound. Ann grasped a microphone and shouted: “Good morning, Maidstone!” We lurched forward.

“I think this might be illegal,” I said. (Surely, it had to be illegal to be standing in the pouring rain on a moving flat-bed truck with a 57-year-old minor celebrity who was shouting “Be positive! Vote Conservative!”)

“Nonsense!” said Ann, blonde bob quivering at the idea. “I do this every election and no police has ever stopped us.”

This can only be because they are afraid of arresting Ann. I always knew that she was formidable but now I also saw that she was indestructible and possibly had missed a huge career in karaoke. As we drove along, she shouted a greeting at everything.

“Hello Number 86 Bus!” she would cry. “Hello Exotic Pet Centre! Hello Mughal Dynasty Restaurant! Hello Teddy Bear Nursery! Good morning, Ye Olde Trusty Pig!”

People stopped and stared. They waved and hooted their horns. They hung out of windows. “Hello up there!” shouted Ann. “Rise up in the world with the Conservatives!”

She says that it is a very effective way to campaign, adding: “Of course, people think I’m entirely mad.” I cannot think why. Still, this was the closest thing that I was going to get to a bandwagon in this rather dull election.

I asked Ann where she got the idea. “From the Pope!” she cried. “Who else?”

I was not sure why she was doing this. She has a majority of 10,318. But this is her seventh and last election and the Popemobile has featured in every one. Has she ever had an egg? “A tomato!” she cries and then shouts at a hairdresser’s. “Hello Cutting Corner! Better hairstyles with the Conservatives!

“We had now been standing in the rain for two hours. I realised, with something close to horror, that there was another hour before lunch. We were out in the country now, barrelling along between villages. I felt like a labrador, sopping wet hair streaming as we faced into the windstream. Next to us, two horses broke into a gallop. “Baaaa, Baaaaa!” shouted Ann at a flock of sheep. I can’t be sure, but I think they bleated back.