Even the Tatton Tories love Bell
Saturday 16 January 1999
The message is clear: as Tatton Tories began the process of selecting a new parliamentary candidate this week, every trace of sleaze has been eliminated from the building that was once Neil Hamilton's power base.
The next general election is several years away but Conservatives in the seat snatched spectacularly by Martin Bell have received permission from Central Office to fast-track the selection process.
This week, Mr Bell, the former BBC journalist who defeated Mr Hamilton on an "anti-sleaze" ticket, reiterated his pledge to serve only one term at Westminster. This makes Tatton - once the fifth safest Tory seat - an enticing prospect, and a flood of applications is expected from parliamentary hopefuls, including former Conservative ministers seeking a return to frontline politics.
Among the names being whispered excitedly in the leafy streets of Knutsford, the main town, are those of Michael Portillo, Michael Forsyth, William Waldegrave and Sebastian Coe. None has yet confirmed his interest.
Not everyone would welcome a high-profile candidate - including some within Tatton Conservative Constituency Association. "Been there, done that," said Mark Stocks, the chairman of the association. "The last thing we want is another media circus."
Others believe that a respected politician would help to banish memories of the 1997 election debacle, when the association insisted on backing Mr Hamilton despite claims that he took money from Mohamed al-Fayed to ask questions in the House.
But divisions within the local party go deeper than differences of opinion about the best type of candidate. Twenty months on, the association is still riven by bitter in-fighting between supporters and opponents of Mr Hamilton. The dissidents say they have been squeezed out of key jobs and ostracised by their colleagues.
Mr Bell, meanwhile, is ruing the one-term pledge he made in the heat of battle but feels honour-bound to keep. "Everything that I stand for would be negated if I did not," he said. "It would be a specific and conspicuous breaking of a promise." His constituents believe he is stretching a point of principle too far. Many, including diehard Tories, would like him to stand for re- election.
Mr Bell has endeared himself to voters, and is said to be particularly popular with the ladies of the Alderley Edge Women's Institute.
On Knutsford Heath, scene of the famous confrontation between Mr Bell, Mr Hamilton and his redoubtable wife, Christine, people out walking their dogs said the independent MP had been a breath of fresh air.
Ken Andrew, a retired businessman, said: "Martin Bell is very likeable, very approachable, and he works hard for the constituency. I've voted Conservative all my life, but I'd be more than happy if he stayed on." Ken Gore, another Knutsford resident, said: "It's a great pity that he can't be persuaded to change his mind. It has been a relief to get away from party politics."
Such views are not surprising, given the goings-on in the local Conservative party. Mr Stocks' claim that the rifts have healed brings a hollow laugh from Mary Grimson, who narrowly survived an attempt to depose her as chairman of a ward party. "My husband and I were against Neil, and it didn't go down too well," said Mrs Grimson. "I don't want to say more than that."
One former councillor, who claims that he was squeezed out of his job, said: "Anti-Hamiltonians such as myself have been treated as lepers. It has been quite vicious."
There is one more name that is being mentioned in the contest to find a Tory standard-bearer: that of Christine Hamilton. She denies any interest in a political career, but there are fears that she may change her mind. One Conservative voter described that prospect as "too horrendous for words".
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