Election '97: The soap opera election

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The Independent Online
The blue-chip Tory seat of Tatton, in Cheshire, was set to become the focal point of a political soap opera yesterday as, amid the most bizarre scenes witnessed in a general election campaign for decades, the veteran BBC foreign correspondent Martin Bell challenged the former Tory minister Neil Hamilton to stand down.

Mr Bell was given a political baptism of fire at a London press conference where, thoroughly mauled by media colleagues, he nervously bared his soul and his private life, and announced his willingness to stand on an "anti-sleaze" ticket against Mr Hamilton, the man at the centre of the Commons cash-for-questions affair

Soon afterwards, Mr Hamilton emerged with his wife from his constituency home, following lunch with Bill Roache, Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, who said that he was supporting Mr Hamilton and described him as an "honourable man".

A written statement delivered by Mrs Hamilton insisted that he would not resign and said he would fight the television journalist.

Mr Bell told his London press conference that he was as non-political as anyone could be; he had had meetings with the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates for Tatton, and their parties, but was in nobody's pocket. If Mr Hamilton did not stand, which he anticipated, nobody would be more pleased. However, if there was a contest and he won, he was prepared to serve as MP for the full, five-year parliamentary term.

He said: "I have been aware of the deep unhappiness of the people there. It's as if there's a kind of poison in the democratic system which means the democratic system is not able to operate."

But the Hamiltons accused Mr Bell of being the "anti-fair play" candidate and a "stooge" of Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager.

Mrs Hamilton said: "If you think we are going to chicken out, three-and- a-half weeks before polling day, you are all mad."

In his statement, Mr Hamilton said: "Mr Bell knows I have strenuously denied any allegation of corruption. I believe the Downey inquiry will clear me of this charge.

"We know nothing of Mr Bell's opinions, save one - he is against the basic principle of British justice, that a man is innocent unless proven guilty. He condemns me without seeing the evidence."

Mr Bell said: "I believe there is a deep disquiet in the public at large about our standards of conduct in public life. It is in everybody's interest that we sort this out. I believe the British people want this."

Having explained in intimate detail the 48 hours it took to accept the principle that he might stand - before embarking on a clandestine visit to the constituency on Sunday - Mr Bell suggested that he could not have lived with himself if he had ducked the challenge. "I could think of lots and lots of reasons for saying this is none of my business, in the same way that I can think of lots and lots of reasons for not testifying to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague," he said.

The electorate in true-blue Tatton is not used to uncertainties, but appeared confused as to Mr Bell's role, and undecided as to how they would vote.

What was clear was that whichever candidate they supported, both Mr Hamilton's supporters and detractors felt that without the conclusions of the Downey report, they were unable to make their decision based on the "true facts".

Jill Bradbury, of Knutsford and District Animal Trust, who had voted for Mr Hamilton in previous elections, said the persisting sleaze allegations meant that they had heard little about policies: "We haven't had enough information about anybody. If the Downey report had come out at least we would have known where we stood with Hamilton."

She was unclear as to what Martin Bell was actually standing for, in terms of policies, but felt, as did many others, that the strength of his personality might make for a good result among a local population "sick" that Mr Hamilton had not resigned.

Omar Ashlan, of the Knutsford Picture Shop, said he would vote Conservative as always, because his vote was cast "for the party rather than the person". He said: "I don't know if Hamilton is guilty or not. But this area is true blue. Even if he loses 75 per cent of his majority he'll still get in."

Mr Ashlan's comments came as a poll in yesterday's Manchester Evening News showed that although the majority of Conservative voters believed the former trade minister should stand down, Mr Hamilton would win the seat with a reduced majority if he toughed it out.

Mr Bell's arrival apparently wrecked plans by councillor Tony Martin, one of the few members of the Tatton Conservative Association, to speak out for a secret ballot on Mr Hamilton's candidature.

He said Mr Bell's intervention would mean that there was now only token resistance to the MP's reselection.