Election '97 : Old Etonian finds Fife a school of hard knocks

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People tend to be out working, so Jacob Rees-Mogg directs his efforts towards the unemployed, the elderly, single mothers and terrifying dogs, as he gamely lopes round a bleak Scottish housing estate on a steep learning curve.

Aged 27, and previously educated at Eton and Oxford, this City fund manager has enrolled at the school of hard knocks - Central Fife campus - to find out how to run a constituency campaign and offer himself up as a lamb for ritual political slaughter.

As a Conservative and Unionist candidate in the last area to have had a Communist MP, his tactic is to canvass for eight hours: "No Tory has been since before Clement Attlee became prime minister".

Mr Rees-Mogg cuts a mildly eccentric figure on the Leven housing estate, helped by a trusty Mercedes Estate and two friends who are up from London. Long and languid, and alarmingly like his journalist father, Lord William Rees-Mogg, he reasons quietly and earnestly with reluctant constituents. The candidate is slowed by the challenge of comprehending the broad Fife accent, while some voters struggle with his Etonian tones.

He refuses to accept his background as an issue. "Nobody says to Tony Blair in Sedgefield: 'You're Scottish, so what are you doing in an English constituency?' Or to Teddy Taylor in Southend. I suppose I'm Teddy Taylor in reverse. He has as much connection with Essex as I do with Central Fife, but we're both campaigning on national issues that affect the whole country. I only had one person who shouted 'Go back to Cornwall', which was rather odd, because I've no connection with Cornwall."

Five years ago, his predecessor took 17.5 per cent of the turnout, while Henry McLeish, currently Labour's Scottish campaign co-ordinator, won on just about 50 per cent, double the Scottish Nationalist vote. If it looks bad for Mr Rees-Mogg, then consider the 7 per cent the Liberal Democrats took last time, despite the fact that Menzies Campbell holds the neighbouring seat for them.

Success, says Mr Rees-Mogg, must ultimately be measured by whether you win the seat or not.

But he is realistic about the impossible odds. Bearing an extravagant rosette proclaiming "No Tartan Tax", he is particularly keen to argue the case for keeping sovereignty in Westminster and out of Edinburgh or Brussels. He is one Tory candidate who will not vote for a single European currency, whatever the result of talks.

Everyone asks if this is a dry run for a safer seat next time, he says. But they all get short shrift. "I don't see this automatic progression. I don't think any of the candidates who have stood in this seat since it was created in 1983 have gone on to stand again. I'm sure none have gone on to be elected. I'll wait and see. If I lose my deposit or something, I don't think anyone would want me to do it again, so it's not just a question of whether I want to do it. And obviously, if I'm elected here I'd stand again."

His name cuts little ice with readers of the Glenrothes Gazette. "If you look at name recognition, only 5 per cent know who Michael Heseltine is. Only 1 or 2 per cent will know who Rees-Mogg is, if that, though I had one lady recently who thought all politicians were pretty dreadful but she always reads my father's articles."

Rees-Mogg the Elder was a Tory candidate at a tender age and against the odds.

He fought a Durham mining seat in the 1950s before taking to journalism, and offered enthusiastic support for the stand in Central Fife: "For him, as for me, it was an invaluable thing to do because of what you learn about part of the country and people you otherwise might not come into contact with."