Election '97: Hamilton balks Bell with legal threat

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The Independent Online
Martin Bell, the prospective independent candidate for Tatton, hit his first electoral hurdle yesterday when he was forced to postpone his nomination because of legal threats over calling himself the "anti-corruption" candidate.

Mr Bell was supposed to be outlining his policies yesterday evening. Instead, he found himself revealing at a press conference that Neil Hamilton, the former Tory constituency MP at the centre of "cash-for-questions" allegations, had "thrown his lawyers" at him, after Mr Bell was advised by the returning officer that describing himself as an "anti-corruption" candidate could leave him open to a legal challenge.

Brian Longden, acting returning officer and chief executive of Macclesfield Borough Council, said: "I pointed out to him [Mr Bell] that his nomination was a good one. I've also pointed out the right of other candidates to inspect nomination papers and object and, in the light of that information, Martin Bell just indicated to me that he will consider the issue afresh before formally submitting his nomination papers."

Mr Hamilton, at a hastily arranged press conference a week to the day and on the same site of the "battle of Knutsford Heath", declined to say whether he had prompted Mr Longden's comments. "I can't disclose the contents of any discussion that I might have had privately with the returning officer," Mr Hamilton said.

But at the town hall earlier, both candidates spent more than three times the time usually allotted for nominations in talks with Mr Longden. Mr Hamilton, whose own nomination went through without a hitch, said that if Mr Bell were allowed to stand under that label and his own electoral chances were subsequently found to have been prejudiced as a result, then it raised the possibility of Mr Bell being unseated under an electoral review.

He accused Mr Bell of "breaking his promise" not to campaign on the sleaze allegations, and called for him to withdraw from the electoral race, echoing Mr Bell's own challenge to Mr Hamilton the night before.

"Mr Bell has obviously betrayed that trust and forfeited any right to be a candidate in this election. It's still not too late for him to stand down and scuttle back to Hampstead where he belongs," Mr Hamilton said. "If Mr Bell is trying to turn his campaign into an extension of the Guardian's character assassination against me then he is prostituting himself," he added.

Mr Bell, in turn, accused Mr Hamilton of being the "most discredited MP in Parliament", and said that the name of his party was simply a technicality as everyone knew what he was standing for.

He insisted that he would not be intimidated, and added: "I will file papers in the morning having taken legal advice. He should know I will not back down."

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