Let’s dance: Ann Widdecombe with Anton Du Beke on Strictly in 2010
Ann Widdecombe, 76, is known as much for her post-parliamentary career as her time as an MP, having left Westminster to become, among other things, a TV personality, pantomime regular and, of course, an alumni of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, writes Angela Epstein.
It was a show on which she lasted a barnstorming ten weeks. The series also paid for the swimming pool in her Dartmoor home.
The former Conservative member for Maidstone went on to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, the fee for which Ann says was ‘silly money’. It was rumoured to be £100,000.
Despite her 23 years as an MP, and a further 11 as an MEP, Ann was never called to the House of Lords. ‘I was very disappointed,’ she admits, ‘but no one has a prescriptive right to go there.’
She was a member of the Brexit party from 2019 until it was renamed Reform UK in 2021. Ann rejoined Reform UK in 2023, which she calls ‘the only common sense party around’.
What did your parents teach you about money?
MY mother was very fussy about savings – though for no particular reason – and from an early age I had a robin-shaped money box called squawky: when you put money in, it squawked. I moved on to a post office savings account. But it didn’t really last. If I’m asked if I’m a saver or spender I say I’m a spender, since I spend first and save what’s left. Savers do it the other way around.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Oh yes, during the credit crash in the late-1980s and early-1990s when mortgages went through the roof. At the time, MPs were not as well paid as now, the allowances were very tight and I had two properties: my flat in London and a tiny cottage in my constituency. So I really had to muddle through for a few years. I’d been an administrator at the University of London before becoming an MP – not a banker or a lawyer – and yet I still had to take a pay cut to enter Parliament.
What is the most expensive thing you bought for fun?
Last year, I took 11 members of my family for a holiday and safari in Kenya. It was pure fun, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I’d turned 75 and I thought, well, I’ve been around for three quarters of a century and there’s no guarantee I’ll get to 100. I had been to Kenya in 1989 when a friend was at the embassy there. I loved it, did a safari and wanted to do it again. Although I still don’t do holidays as a ritual. And before this trip last year I hadn’t had a holiday for five years. However, as part of my work, I do give talks on cruise ships so I go away for free. If I had to pay for it, I wouldn’t do it!
What is your biggest money mistake?
Probably the cottage I bought for £56,000 in Sutton Valence in Kent when I became an MP in 1987. It was tiny and all I could afford but I gave in to pressure from constituents who wanted their MP to own a home in the area.
The problem was the allowances then were nothing like they are now. I already had a flat in London in Kennington (where all the MPs lived who couldn’t afford much). So I had to pay two deposits plus the capital repayments. It was quite difficult for a couple of years. That said, some MPs took out interest-only mortgages and I was very glad I hadn’t as when I sold it, I had paid off so much of the capital.
Game on: Ann as the newly elected Brexit party MEP in 2019
The best money decision you have made
Well, I never lived up to my Ministerial income which meant I paid off the cottage mortgage faster. But undeniably the final house I bought in London, in 1999, was the best money decision I ever made. I had been thinking I would need to leave my flat for something bigger to look after my parents. So I went for a four-bedroom house with a garden and a garage off the Old Kent Road. That was the quickest profit I made on a property and was a solid investment.
If I hadn’t retired to the West Country it would have been easily worth seven figures now. I sold up in 2008 and was able to buy something much bigger – a five-bedroom 1970s chalet bungalow near Haytor on Dartmoor – for the same price. It needed a lot of work and I didn’t move in until 2010.
Do you save into a pension?
The one thing I have got right all my life was being very diligent right from the outset about a pension. I always had occupational schemes and when I left my job at London University after being elected as an MP, I transferred it into the Parliamentary scheme and I worked long enough to maximise the pension. I was the Pension Minister from 1991 to 1993 and I got this right.
Do you invest directly in the stock market?
No. I can safely say I have never bought a stock or share. I’m not a great saver but also my father bought shares in all the nationalised industries after they were privatised and it was quite hard to sort out his will. I remember thinking, I am never going to get into this and never did.
How many properties do you own?
Just one – in Dartmoor – which I bought for the views (it needed gutting). I can see right across Dartmoor to Torquay. On a clear day, the sea sparkles and I love sitting out on the terrace. Admittedly on a misty day I can’t see a foot beyond the front door.
What was the best year of your financial life?
The year I retired in 2010 as I had saved into a pension, got a lump sum and also MPs got a resettlement allowance. I had earnings from books I had written – seven so far and I have plans for more.
Tub-thumping: Ann with Ashley James in 2018’s Celebrity Big Brother
Have you ever been paid silly money?
Yes, for Celebrity Big Brother. I’ll never earn anything on that scale again.
I had told my agent I would never do the show. But he explained that for the next season they wanted to call it Big Sister – though that didn’t happen – and that it would celebrate 100 years of suffrage. So there would be more serious people than usual and there would be more serious debates.
I said, ‘Load of tosh.’ But my agent reminded me I wouldn’t be in Australia, in the jungle. It was Elstree and I could walk out any time. So I did it on that basis – thinking I would last a week. But I stayed.
If you were Chancellor, what would you do?
Reduce taxes immediately since that promotes growth, encourages business and fights inflation. I believe in a very small state.
Do you donate money to charity?
There are three charities close to my heart: The Leprosy Mission, the Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land and the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats. I’ve always had particular affection for the leprosy mission. The way I donate is through speaking engagements.
What is your number one financial priority?
In my working life my priority was to maximise my pension and now that I am retired, I think I want enough to survive into old age.
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