Election '97: The terror of being behind the lines

Jojo Moyes talks to Martin Bell as he prepares to face Tatton electors
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The Independent Online
As Martin Bell tucked into a fried breakfast in his prospective constituency yesterday morning, the staff of the Longview hotel were agog. It was not Mr Bell's appearance, or the eminent political pundits lining up in reception to interview him which excited them; it was that David Soul, star of the 1970s cop show Starsky and Hutch, had rung up to offer Mr Bell his support.

As if the sight of the Tory candidate for Tatton, Neil Hamilton, being lauded by the Coronation Street actor Bill Roache was not surreal enough, Mr Bell yesterday launched his campaign with the support of Colonel Bob Stewart, who led the Cheshire regiment in Bosnia.

He also has the support of an ex-wife in the Pacific and Soul, the American actor and singer of such classics as: "All I want is black bean soup (and you to give it to me)".

"He's an old friend of mine. He lived in London for a while and we have dinner quite often," Mr Bell explained. Then, perhaps conscious of the need for absolute transparency, he added: "You can call him if you like. I'll give you his number."

Mr Bell, trembling slightly as he ate, was doing his best to don a political career as comfortably as his trademark white suit. But 24 hours after he announced his intention to stand, he was evidently realising the magnitude of presenting himself as incorruptible.

Catching sight of the Daily Mail headline about the IRA: "They Make Me Ashamed", he did a quick double-take just to check it was not referring to him.

"I'm very apprehensive about the inevitable mud that will be thrown," he admitted. "It is absolutely terrifying to be on the other side of the lines. I know all these [journalists]; some of them are my friends. But it's like I always wondered what it would be like being wounded, it's only when you're wounded that you actually know ..."

Anyone he ever knew had already been called by inquiring hacks. His ex- wife, Helen, he said, had been highly amused by it all: "When she married me I was a very straight, middle-of-the-road, never-put-your-head-above-the-parapet kind of chap."

Mr Bell would not disclose his policies on the basis that it would be inappropriate before he was formally accepted at both Labour and Liberal Democrat selection meetings later this week. He admitted candidly that having been out of the country for 17 of the last 20 years, he was "not up to speed" on many of the issues.

Pressed on his political leanings, he described himself as "centre", possibly liberal "with a very small 'L'," But his campaign, he said, would be based on "the trust issue".

"It's getting this constituency back to a place where it's like all the other constituencies and candidates fight each other on regular political issues," he said.

The fact that sleaze was persistently resurrected "must be driving the Conservative Party to distraction," he said, though not unsympathetically.

His standing, he thought, might actually help John Major to apply pressure on Mr Hamilton, "in which case I expect my letter of thanks from 10 Downing Street".

Mr Bell was at pains to stress that he was not anti-Conservative: "I'm in the rare position as an independent that I can conceive of a situation where, if the Conservatives were in opposition, I might vote with them against the Government. This is not an anti-Conservative intervention in any sense."

Some of Mr Hamilton's detractors, such as the Conservative Association Treasurer, Tony Martin, have rejected the idea of a "left-wing" journalist standing in their election. But Mr Bell said his career had some political benefits.

"Journalists are always said to be bottom of pile in public esteem but I actually have many more friends than I know, because of being on television. When I was wounded, I received 1,000 letters from total strangers, so I do have a recognition factor. And generally, because I spent most of my life in war zones, I don't have a voting record. That's not something I'm particularly proud of, but it does help if you want to stand as an independent," he said.

Mr Bell, who was in the process of making a "good old grade A" documentary about the United Nations, now finds himself suspended from duty. ("Does that mean I have to sneak in at midnight to lay down a track?") He had also just finished a series of eight slots for Radio 4 on the relationship between news and the media.

One piece dealt specifically with the issue of corruption. It showed, Mr Bell said, that his concern about the issue emerged long before the prospect of election came up. "This is not an isolated case - you have ministers being economical with the truth, the growth of lobbyists at Westminster, shady consultancies, and the culture of greed," he said.

Yesterday, with pounds 6,000 in his account ("you can see my bank statements if you like, they're upstairs,") he admitted that he did not know how he was going to manage his campaign.

"I don't think other parties are going to be providing resources to help. They can't. But I hope that there are activists who might help, especially Conservative activists. There's been an amazing response from people so far," he said.

Just as he was campaigning for the high moral ground, so his campaign would be grounded in fairness, he insisted.

"This could get really brutal but I have to take very strong line on this campaign, that it's going to be dignified - perhaps with a little humour, that would be good," he said.