Election 1997: White suits and walkabouts

The battle for Tatton Tories' hearts has just begun. Robin Stummer on Martin Bell's first week as a politician
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"Nee-Ull, Nee-ull! Come in!" The booming voice meant business, and even the daffodils seemed to bow in deference. Since emerging victorious from last Tuesday's constituency meeting, the Conservative Party candidate for Tatton and his wife have been mostly holed up at home.

There are worse places to be imprisoned. For years, the Old Rectory at Nether Alderley (oiro pounds 500,000) has been the fixed point around which North Cheshire's ruling clique revolved, one of a string of genteel fortresses maintaining Pax Toriana in the North-west. For most of last week only the occasional spousal command broke the silence. The Hamiltons were in hiding.

Eight miles away, a middle-aged man in a beige jacket and cream slacks was wondering if he would need to make a return dash to London to replenish his wardrobe. "I didn't bring enough white suits," he explains. "I thought I'd only be here for 48 hours."

Martin Bell set out for Tatton last week in the hope that merely by offering himself, restive local Tories would be pushed into open revolt against Mr Hamilton. The veteran war correspondent's campaign commenced at a gallant canter. Reunited with Colonel Bob Stewart, his old friend from Bosnia, and sundry ex-regimental chums, Bell took to Knutsford Heath on Tuesday afternoon, immaculately clad in his white battledress, confident it would all be over by Christmas. But Britain's very own smart weapon proved no match for the battle-hardened Hamiltons. After the "ambush", which he later described as worse than anything he'd experienced in Vietnam, Bell and his men retreated in disarray to prepare for trench war.

Wednesday morning's sortie was more successful. Shaken by the previous day's blitzkrieg, Bell had swapped his suit for a less conspicuous fawn ensemble to make what he described as an "exploratory stroll" around Wilmslow.

"It's only my second day as a politician," he told one old lady. "Oh, I'll vote for you," the woman beamed back nervously. Further down the street, Wilmslow's lone Big Issue seller withdrew into a dark alley declining to sell Mr Bell a copy: "Ooh no, don't want anything to do with them." Melissa, Bell's photogenic 24-year-old daughter, arrived as his assistant not a moment too soon, and has played a credible Cordelia to his Lear on the blasted heath since. Christine Hamilton is in an entirely different Shakespeare tragedy as Lady Macbeth.

Melissa has been there when Bell has been at his most dazed, wandering the streets like an unguided, low-velocity missile, one hand fumbling in jacket pocket, the other hanging expectantly in mid-air, always vaguely embarrassed by the reporters and camera crews. "He's not a politician," she has explained, "and doesn't want to be a politician in the sense that people understand." And in the sense that people understand, Bell has so far not been a politician.

His command and control centre has been the 20ft by 20ft bar room under the Longview Hotel. It wasn't the most likely birthplace for what some see as a new dawn for politics, yet there could have been no more apt base for Bell to attempt his recapture of traditional British standards. Despite the country-club Englishness of its Victorian prints and fireplace, the steady stream of volunteers and the palpable sense of purpose and goodwill made the bunker feel like the heart of one of the democratic revolutions of Eastern Europe.

By Wednesday lunchtime the Bell team consisted of Melissa and David Geen, a pipe-smoking television producer from Saddleworth. Every two or three minutes the one phone would ring with more offers of support. "We are inundated with 'quality' calls - local Tories, well connected people - one woman's promised to bring 50 of her friends with her," he explained. "It's barely printable what they say about Hamilton."

The real crisis halfway through Wednesday was a lack of hardboard on which to mount election posters. But the problem was solved. "We've just had offers of help from people who have access to hardboard." A man then appeared brandishing a movie camera, and set about filming close-ups of Mr Geen on the phone. "I'm making a film diary," he explained.

Just past midday, someone shouted, "John Stalker is here." Outside, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, who lives four miles from Knutsford, explained that he was "not anti-anybody. I've never yet met Martin Bell. All I know about him is from Bosnia". Then they met, and Stalker offered "local advice". At two, Bell held an emotional press conference at Knutsford Little Theatre to announce that, after a distinguished BBC career, he had decided to resign. Outside, a man from Widnes, dressed in a multi-coloured leotard, said he was standing as the Tommy Sex Party candidate. "I could do with some sleaze this afternoon," he quipped amiably.

By three, we were back at the Longview. A Ferret armoured car pulled up outside, painted white and emblazoned "UN". "We're the UN sleaze-keeping force," beamed its helmeted "commander". "We are here to ensure fair play between the rivals in Tatton." Bell loved it. "I know these," he said. "This one's been in Bosnia," said the commander.

Thursday morning, on the high street, Bell bumped into Michael Field, a prominent local Tory carrying a cheese flan, who is opposed to Mr Hamilton's candidacy. Suddenly, shouts of "Go home, Bell!" emanated from two bloods in a black Ferrari. Seconds later, it made another pass, expletives drowned out this time by heavy traffic. But there was a friendlier reception from a D-reg Datsun - "Well done, Mr Bell, well done!"

The media tussle passed by the doorway of Regency Man, a small gents' outfitters. "I could have fixed him up with a nice suit if he'd come here," observed the owner, Keith Abercrombie. "He looks a right mess - absolutely shocking - badly fitting and badly creased. What a politician needs is something like this," and he pulled out one of a wide selection of grey suits. "Something like this would be much better."

That evening, there were stirrings at the Old Rectory. A rigid blonde mane appeared over the holly hedge, followed swiftly by a large, pale face. "Are you press?" she asked. "Oh, you are - just please bugger orf, will you? I mean in the politest possible terms."

The politest possible persistence paid off, however, and the Independent on Sunday was granted an audience with the nation's most wanted couple. "You can come out, Neil, I think he's tame." Mr Hamilton then appeared over the holly. His wife did the talking. When would they start going on walkabouts? "Next week, I suppose," answered Mrs Hamilton, "but we don't want a media circus. People round here of the Conservative mind know the BBC as metropolitan southerners, but we don't want to be told what to do by outsiders. Look, I'm sorry I told you to bugger orf..."

And what, Neil, would you do if you lost your seat? "I'm sure there would be a job for me at the BBC. Or I could emigrate to Bosnia."

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