Election '97: Ambush laid under a blazing sun in Knutsford

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It was as if the OK Corral had come to The Heath at Knuts-ford. Under the blazing sun stood Martin Bell, prospective independent "anti-corruption" candidate, dressed in white and flanked by former soldier Colonel Bob Stewart.

Facing him stood Conservative candidate Neil Hamilton, flanked by another seasoned fighter - his wife, Christine.

As Mr Bell prepared to launch his campaign in Tatton yesterday afternoon, the previously elusive Mr Hamilton emerged to hijack the war correspondent's press conference because, he muttered as he strode across the green, "he had a few questions of his own".

This small slice of the general election brings daily more bizarre scenes and here, in the Cheshire stockbroker belt, the two veterans, one of bloody battle grounds and the other of more gentlemanly conflicts, faced each other, surrounded by a heaving circle of reporters and cameramen.

At first it appeared to be an uncommonly polite confrontation. Mr Hamilton, despite his wife's assertion that he could not talk "under the Representation of the People's Act" told reporters he had come to help "lay some ground rules" before what looked like a bloody fight.

Mr Bell assured him: "I don't intend to get into the substance of any allegations about you, I intend to talk about trust." It would, he said, be counterproductive.

But then the Hamiltons' more seasoned political skills came into play, and they began what looked like something of a domestic ambush. "So are you prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt on these allegations?" asked Mr Hamilton.

As Mr Bell faltered, with a gallant "absolutely", Mrs Hamilton repeatedly interjected with: "Do you then accept my husband is innocent?"

If Mr Bell accepted a man's presumed innocence, the Hamiltons' rounded, then why was he standing as an "anti- corruption" candidate?

Mr Bell, evidently wishing he had brought his flak jacket, denied this, saying he was standing as an independent. He defended his "anti-corruption" stand by charging that Mr Hamilton had admitted some wrongdoing in accepting hospitality from Mohamed al Fayed. "So did Tony Blair and John Prescott," said Mr Hamilton. "Why aren't you standing for Hull or Sedgfield then?"

"I can't stand everywhere," protested Mr Bell.

"You can stand where you want as you're not going to get elected," Mr Hamilton muttered. The Hamiltons left smiling, having scored some political capital in the confrontation.

Meanwhile, a local taxi driver traded punches with a cameraman on whose stool he had been standing and Col Stewart, former commander of British troops in Bosnia, who had been standing on the sidelines, announced he was there as a character witness.

Last night, after Mr Hamilton was adopted as Tatton Tories' candidate, Mr Bell sent him a letter offering him an assurance - "on one condition" - that he would not refer to allegations that Mr Hamilton took cash from Mr Fayed, owner of Harrods, to ask questions in the Commons.

"The condition is this: you should give an undertaking to resign as an MP if you are elected, but Sir Gordon Downey finds you guilty of taking cash. I hope that you will give that pledge to the electors of Tatton," Mr Bell wrote.