Politics: Tories play safe with mumsy Euro-sceptic in Beckenham

Jacqui Lait has a disarming answer to the Piers Merchant `problem'. She tells Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, she's too `motherly' to be involved in a sex scandal.

"I don't look like someone who is going to get involved in sleaze," said Jacqui Lait, the Tory candidate in the Beckenham by-election. Pressed to say what she meant, Ms Lait - she is happily married - said: "It's not my style. Someone said I had been described in the press as motherly. I don't mind that."

Being described as "motherly" is hardly a problem for Ms Lait, who is fighting a seat vacated by the former Tory MP Piers Merchant, who resigned after being video-recorded in bed with an ex-hostess.

Ms Lait's biggest problem at the moment is fighting shy of the accusation that she is pro-European, and a "Kennite", a member of the Ken Clarke tendency.

A former chairman of the European Union of Women (British Section) who lists Europe among her interests, she is suspiciously Europhile for some Tory MPs.

However, when pressed on the issue, she is resolutely behind the new leader, William Hague, in rejecting the arguments of Mr Clarke and his friends on the single currency.

As a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr Hague, she says she has no hesitation in supporting her party leader's line ruling out entry to the single currency in the next Parliament. She also denies going through a conversion to Euro-scepticism. "I have always been deeply sceptical of the practicalities of the single currency," she said.

Ms Lait was the MP for Hastings and Rye, a seat she lost at the last election, and the first woman into the Tory whip's office. She dissociates herself from the campaign against the leader being run by the former Chancellor and his friends over Europe. "It is crazy. On the whole, the thing is just not an issue." At her selection conference, Ms Lait told the Beckenham Tories that Europe was not an issue in the sense that the Tories were in government. Ms Lait, who lists her recreations as walking, swimming, theatre, food and wine, told the local party she would fight the by-election on local issues, including education and health.

Mr Clarke's friends privately said they were worried at being blamed for a set-back in the by-election. It is being held on 20 November, the same day as polling in the Winchester by-election, where Gerry Malone, the former minister, has a re-run after successfully appealing against a Liberal Democrat victory on grounds of irregularities at the general election.

Ms Lait said she lost the Hastings seat due to demographic changes. Mr Merchant had a majority of 4,953 over Labour on 1 May. The aim of a short three-week campaign is to give Labour little time to organise, but the timing of the campaign, after the let-down by the MP's private life, leaves Ms Lait facing a possible backlash in the midst of the most serious Tory split since the divisions over free trade.

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