Election '97: Pressure grows for Hamilton to quit

Secret ballot to seal embattled MP's fate
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The former Tory minister Neil Hamilton looked dead in the water last night after pressure on him to stand down intensified. Not only was the journalist Martin Bell named as the anti-sleaze candidate to stand against him but it was confirmed that a secret ballot would be held at tomorrow's Conservative association meeting on Mr Hamilton's candidature.

After Mr Bell's appointment, support fell further. Alan Barnes, chairman of Tatton's Conservative Association and a Hamilton supporter until last night, agreed to hold a secret ballot to enable activists to vote without pressure on whether they wish to ditch the MP, who has been at the centre of the cash-for-questions row.

Dissidents rejoiced that Mr Barnes had agreed to a secret ballot and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were excited by the prospect of Mr Hamilton being ousted. Robin Estridge, a lifelong Conservative, said: "I hope the first thing that will happen ... is that Mr Hamilton will be deselected in order that we can have a genuine and proper Conservative candidate. As I understand it, there are candidates waiting in the wings who can stand as Conservatives. I assume if that happened, Mr Bell would stand down ... what we want is a candidate we can support. If there is a secret ballot and it goes against Mr Hamilton that will be the best possible outcome." Neil Derbyshire, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the national candidates committee, praised Mr Bell as "an honourable, open character who I have confidence in. The local party will endorse him on Monday week".

When asked on BBC1's Breakfast With Frost how he would like the Tatton association to vote, John Major said: "I've not interfered ... they know their Member of Parliament, they know he vigorously protests that the main charges against him are untrue and that matter is being investigated." Mr Major said he agreed with the comment by the former minister Alan Clark that "You must separate bonking, which everybody does, from taking bribes." Mr Major said: "Alan puts it in his own colourful way but I agree with his remarks ... If Sir Gordon [Downey] reports that people have behaved very badly, if they have behaved well below the standards required of a Member of Parliament, then Parliament has very Draconian power."

Last night Roger Barlow, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Tatton, told why he was happy to give way to Mr Bell. "I am angry," he said, "not with Neil Hamilton - he is ... a product of the system. Where you have rooms ... with no light and no fresh air, then you get strange, smelly things growing. What I'm cross about is the suppression of the Downey report. John Major has trotted out this line of innocent until guilty but this is a complete twisting of logic."