Election '97: Bell rides to victory as Tatton's white knight

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The man who predicted he would have "the shortest political career in history" was today beginning a five year stretch in Parliament.

Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent, won the seat of Tatton in Cheshire from former trade minister Neil Hamilton, who had held it with a notional 22,000 majority

Mr Bell's victory makes him the only Independent MP at Westminster. He has said that he will takes seats on either side of the Commons and alternate.

When Mr Bell walked into the count early today,. the tellers stood to applaud him while Mr Hamilton and his wife Christine toured the tellers' table looking glum as they waited for the result to be announced.

The battle for Tatton has seen some of the most bitter - and occasionally surreal - scenes of the election.

Mr Hamilton had been at the centre of sleaze allegations since October 1994. The delay of the Downey Report, which examined the cash for questions affair, left him with a large question mark hanging over his integrity.

Since Mr Bell arrived on the political scene on 7 April, replacing the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates in an attempt to make Mr Hamilton stand down, the two candidates have waged an increasingly hostile and public battle.

Tory activists in Tatton had tried to secure waverers' votes by promising that Mr Hamilton would be replaced by the former Tory party chairman Chris Patten.

One local resident said she been told by Tory canvassers that whatever her personal feelings about Mr Hamilton, she should vote for him "this time round" as he would be out after the Downey report.

Then, instead of Mr Bell and the "Hampstead Mafia", Tatton Conservatives would have a new Tory MP in the form of Mr Patten, who will give up the governorship of Hong Kong in June when the colony is handed back to China.

Another Tatton Conservative Association source told The Independent that it was "fairly common knowledge". Mr Hamilton's Conservative supporters, he said, were "absolutely desperate. They'll say anything that's legal to get him re-elected".

He added: "It's been mooted about Chris Patten for a long time, since Mr Hamilton's adoption meeting. But to be perfectly honest it's absolute rubbish."

Mr Bell has in turn accused Mr Hamilton of waging a campaign "by fax and lawyer". He has counted among his high-profile supporters David Soul, formerly of television show Starsky & Hutch, Sir Alec Guinness, Peter O'Toole, his daughter Melissa and the ubiquitous Bell's Belles, his three glamorous female volunteers.

The battle has also attracted an unusual cast of supporting actors including the 7ft "transformer" Miss Moneypenny of Miss Moneypenny's Glamorous One Party and poet Lord Byro of the Lord Byro Versus the Scallywags Tories Party.