Election '97: Hamilton wins qualified support

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Neil Hamilton was last night re-selected as Tatton's Conservative candidate by a vote of nearly 2-1, but some disgruntled party activists raised the prospect of putting up an independent Conservative candidate to stand against him.

After a lively constituency meeting at the Dixon Arms pub in Chelford, Mr Hamilton was backed by 182 members, with 35 voting against and four abstentions, although 61 did not vote. While the adoption meeting failed to provide the ringing endorsement he was seeking, it set the scene for a battle in the Cheshire constituency between Mr Hamilton and the BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, who will run on an anti-sleaze ticket.

A number of members left the meeting complaining it had been "a whitewash". Richard Cussons said that while seven people had been allowed to speak for Mr Hamilton, only three had been called to speak against. Mr Cussons indicated that there was a possibility of an independent candidate coming forward to stand against Mr Hamilton "within the next few days".

One of those who had not been allowed to speak, councillor Ian Grimson, walked out, saying he was "absolutely horrified and disappointed" by the result. "We have just lost the whole election," he said. Tony Martin, treasurer of the association, who had been vocal in his public opposition to Mr Hamilton's candidacy, was heckled throughout his speech and hissed at by opposing members.

But many of those who came out of the meeting said they would be voting for Mr Hamilton on the basis of his impassioned speech, during which he "fully explained the position" regarding the sleaze allegations.

Mr Hamilton insisted only a "small proportion" of party members at the meeting voted against him. He now believed a "substantial majority" of local activists would rally round and support him at the election.

He dismissed as "utterly ridiculous" suggestions that some people might have felt intimidated about publicly voting against him.

He said of Mr Bell: "He seems like a nice guy - totally unfitted for politics," and claimed that his candidature had been engineered by the Labour Party leadership.

As reporters and photographers crowded round, Mr Hamilton embraced his wife, Christine, who brandished a large blue "vote Neil Hamilton" poster.

Mr Bell said after the decision: "It seems my political career will be rather long. It seems I'm going to take him all the way. I have no doubt I will be the next member for Tatton."

More than 50 members in the meeting voted for a secret ballot, but the constituency leadership decided that there was insufficient support for the secret vote.

Earlier, as Mr Bell prepared to launch his campaign, the previously elusive Mr Hamilton emerged to hijack the war correspondent's press conference. There followed a bizarre confrontation between Mr Bell and Mr and Mrs Hamilton, in which the reporter came off worst. He was ambushed into saying that he gave Mr Hamilton the benefit of the doubt over the cash-for-questions allegations, which prompted Mrs Hamilton to ask why was he then standing against her husband.

Martin Bell profile, page 8