Election '97: Straight-talking right-winger reckons he will have last say

Kathy Marks on the wit and wisdom of David Evans, man of the people

The man in the battered Fiesta caught sight of David Evans, screeched to a halt and reversed back up the road. "How yer doing, guv'nor?" he yelled.

The man, who turned out to be Den Cox, owner of a local fish-and-chip shop, had stopped to wish his local MP well for Thursday. Mr Cox was full of praise for Mr Evans. "He's a great man, like a gun barrel, dead straight," he said. "You don't get no pretty words from him, you get direct talk."

It is with direct talk that the colourful Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield has made a name. A staunch right-winger of the hanging and flogging school, he was vilified last month for an interview with a school magazine in which he sprayed abuse in several directions.

Mr Evans, 61, described Virginia Bottomley as "dead from the neck upwards", scorned female MPs generally and said his Labour opponent, Melanie Johnson, was a "single girl" with "three bastard children" who had "never done a proper job". He also referred to a "black bastard" who had been convicted of rape.

But far from damaging his prospects in Welwyn Hatfield, where boundary changes have reduced his majority to 6,500, Mr Evans's outburst appears to have boosted his popularity. As he canvassed yesterday in Mardley Heath, an affluent area on the outskirts of Welwyn, an elderly woman threw her arms around him. "I hope to heaven you get back in," she said. "You speak your mind. I wish there were more like you."

Mr Evans shows no hint of contrition. A self-made millionaire, he loves his barrow-boy image and believes that his comments demonstrate he is a man of the people. "The voters here know what David Evans is about, so they weren't shocked. Maybe my language was a bit colourful, but I think the meat of it was what people think. For every person round here who calls me bigoted, there's another one who says: 'You were a bit out of order' and then leans forward and whispers 'But I agree with you, mate'."

Mr Evans elaborated on his views about female MPs yesterday - they are by necessity "sub-standard", he said - and he reiterated his opinion of Miss Johnson. "She lives in Cambridge with her boyfriend and three illegitimate children. I've lived here for 35 years, I'm a family man with family values. If ever there was a stark choice between two people, this is it."

Welwyn Hatfield is a barometer seat. It has never returned a Tory MP when Labour has been in power. Mr Evans said he expected to hang on.

John Redwood, for whom he was campaign manager during the leadership battle, has lent support, as has Lord Parkinson. "We went into the heart of Melanie country last week," Mr Evans said. "Bandit country. I got a few mouthfuls there, I can tell you." His tirade last month at least provides a talking-point on doorsteps. "I've been your MP for 10 years and I get myself into hot water sometimes," he says by way of introduction.

The well-groomed women in the semi-detached houses of Mardley Heath are unperturbed. "I think he's just a typical man of his generation," said one. "He probably opened his mouth without thinking. My husband does it all the time."

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