Election '97: Anti-gay Tory tiptoes round his polling partner

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Adrian Rogers, the Conservative candidate for Exeter, in Devon, has become strangely silent of late. And for someone who relishes his reputation as the scourge of homosexuality, he is being uncharacteristically reticent.

Usually happy to shoot from the hip, describing homosexuality as a "sterile, disease-ridden, God-forsaken occupation", and attractive women in the workplace as "fair game for anybody", he is making every effort to bite his lip in the run up to the General Election.

The reason is only too plain. The Labour candidate for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, is a personable former BBC reporter, popular, a veritable Hugh Grant lookalike and a homosexual.

Dr Rogers cannot afford to trip himself up, but then again, he cannot help himself.

Turning down a request for an interview yesterday, he explained: "I'm a hostage for negative publicity. It's helping me being selective. We don't want bad publicity. We don't some queer media person from London wrecking it."

Ironically, Matthew Parris, the gay former Tory backbencher, and now parliamentary sketch-writer with the Times, who has been known to put pen to paper on the subject of Dr Rogers' bigotry, was visiting Exeter yesterday. Coming face to face for the first time, Dr Rogers took a swipe at his critic. "You should be ashamed of your approach to me. You don't even give a man a chance for a fair hearing," he said.

Mr Bradshaw, 36, who like Martin Bell, another BBC man, is presenting himself as a trustworthy candidate, was out knocking on doors yesterday before Tony Blair's battle bus rolled up in the afternoon. While he is not overtly making political capital out of Dr Rogers' rampant homophobia, he does admit that he is blessed with his opposition.

"I certainly think Dr Rogers is my greatest asset," he said yesterday. "I've had letters from all parties congratulating me - no, that's the wrong word - welcoming my honesty."

On his first day's canvassing, Mr Bradshaw was invited into the home of a lifelong Conservative. "She took my hand and said 'I'm absolutely delighted with your selection. My brother was gay in a less tolerant age and committed suicide'."

Mr Bradshaw knows that some people are prejudiced, "and it's a prejudice that runs deep", but insists that concern has been "minimal". He has felt from the beginning that, if anything, his homosexuality would be a plus point, provided he was open about it.

"One, it's radical," he said. "Two, it would smoke Rogers out, which it's done very successfully. And three, it would appeal to Walworth Road after the way it's been treated, that is, put this in your pipe and smoke it."

It is tempting to script one's own alternative manifesto for Dr Rogers, based on a selection of his most outlandish statements. In fact, it is a temptation to which the Labour Party in Exeter has succumbed. Mr Bradshaw's aides keep a file of their opponent's greatest hits which, being well trained in media management by their candidate, they are keen to share.

Dr Rogers on road protesters: "They should be gassed out of the tunnels, starved out, or whatever the police deem necessary." Dr Rogers on sex offenders: "As there is no guarantee that sex offenders will not reoffend, castration and lobotomy should be undertaken on willing people before being allowed back into community." And so on.

But Dr Rogers came out of hiding briefly yesterday. He had hoped to compare his "Contract with Exeter" with Mr Blair's "Con-Trick" by way of a "warm-up act" for the visiting Labour leader. But no sooner had the local GP clambered upon his soap box in the city's Cathedral Yard, than he was heckled off the political stage.

Eventually, Dr Rogers' minder allowed him a few words with a journalist. He trotted out his well-rehearsed lines. Why had he not been seen out and about in the constituency earlier? "We're limited by pounds 7,500 expenditure." Why is the previous Tory incumbent, Sir John Hannam, not visibly supporting him? "Actually, he's bought a house in the Isle of Wight." And what about the fact that his opponent is openly gay? "It's their issue, not mine. They've brought it to Exeter, not me. It's their problem."

But it may turn out to be less of a problem than Dr Rogers thinks. Mr Bradshaw's homosexuality appears to be just what the spin doctors ordered.