Election '97: Mission impossible for woman who keeps the blue flag flying

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The Independent Online
For a woman faced with a task akin to the uphill struggle of Sisyphus, Lizzie Pitman is remarkably cheerful.

This fresh-faced 29-year-old is the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield, a rural constituency in County Durham. The sitting MP there not only has a majority of nearly 15,000, but is likely to be the next prime minister.

When Mrs Pitman talks of wresting the seat from Tony Blair, the words "cat" and "hell" spring to mind. Yet despite the odds, and the news yesterday that her election agent had broken his ankle, she refuses to be downhearted.

"You'd be surprised how many Conservatives there are round here," she said, canvassing in the village of Heighington with a spring in her step. "We're keeping the flag flying."

They love Lizzie Pitman in Heighington, with its village green and pretty Georgian houses. It is one of a few scattered pockets of Tory support within a constituency composed largely of ravaged former mining towns.

On the streets, elderly women embrace her warmly. "We wish you all the best, dear, you're absolutely marvellous," said one. "And you never know: pigs might fly."

Labour activists in Sedgefield have poked fun at Mrs Pitman's designer clothes and blue-chip background. She is a niece of the Earl of Gainsborough, comes from a landed Cotswolds family, and recently married a former Household Cavalry officer. A devout Roman Catholic, she accompanies pilgrimages to Lourdes.

Mrs Pitman was selected as a candidate at the first attempt - the cause of much rejoicing at Central Office, where she was the preferred choice to oppose the Labour leader in this David and Goliath contest.

Her elfin good looks and aristocratic connections have since made her the darling of the gossip columns. "Our undisputed Tory pin-up," one diarist called her. "Very embarrassing," she says, looking up from under her long eyelashes.

But Mrs Pitman is no dizzy ingenue. She is an articulate and determined woman with a philosophy degree who spent two years in the psychology unit at Wormwood Scrubs prison. She has also worked as a political researcher, for Conservative MP Peter Thurnham and Labour's Kevin McNamara.

A former Labour supporter, she underwent her conversion on the road to Damascus in Mr McNamara's office. "I realised that there's no point in appearing to be compassionate if you can't deliver the practical results," she says briskly. Mr McNamara is said to have told a Tory MP: "She's far too good for your party".

Mrs Pitman describes herself as "on the sensible wing" of the Conservatives. She is "pro-Life", pro-Europe and pro-field sports.

She adores John Major and agrees with Michael Howard's tough sentencing policies. "The terrific thing about the Conservative Party is that it doesn't matter where you come from, but where you're going to," she says.

The charge that she knows nothing of social hardship in the North-east is not really fair. After all, Tony Blair - despite acquiring a house in the former colliery village of Trimdon and listing membership of three working men's clubs in Who's Who - is hardly a member of the cloth cap and whippet brigade either. Mrs Pitman refuses to talk about defeat. "That's not a word that I want to hear in the middle of an election campaign," she says, although she later concedes: "It's hard work; there's no point in pretending."

Her next stab at Westminster - her admirers hope - will be in a more winnable seat. In the meantime, her high profile as Mr Blair's challenger does her political career no harm and assures her of a place in the history books, if only as a footnote.