Election '97: Sleaze showdown at Knutsford Corral

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The Independent Online
It was as if the OK Corral had come to The Heath at Knutsford. 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 battlegrounds 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 later felt obliged to reaffirm his position. "I have not said Mr Hamilton is innocent of the charges against him. I have said some of the charges are not proven. I'm not going to talk about them.")

Mr Bell defended his "anti-corruption" stand by charging that Mr Hamilton had admitted some wrongdoing in accepting hospitality from Mohammed 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.

"Well, that was fun, wasn't it?" said Mr Bell, as he left. The exchange appeared to have given him a taste for the political battle.