Politics: Crusader humbled by the slings and arrows

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The Independent Online
Martin Bell MP, the former foreign correspondent, was under fire again yesterday over accusations that he failed to declare all his election expenses. Andrew Buncombe reports on the latest political flak flying around in Tatton.

Mr Bell, as usual in his trademark light suit, threw down the gauntlet and suggested he would resign if he discovered his electorate had lost confidence in him.

In a combative yet nervous performance, he told a packed press conference he was unaware that legal advice he had taken before the last election, costing pounds 9,400, had been paid for by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

"I fought an extraordinary campaign, it was not a campaign but a crusade. My whole campaign was run by volunteers," he said. "I really thought it was free. Everything was free."

"If I was innocent (in thinking it came free), I don't think being politically innocent is an indictable offence. I guess I know rather more about politics now."

He added that he would be asking his constituents to write to him with their views. "If they have lost confidence in me - which I doubt - I will reconsider my position."

Mr Bell called the press conference after it was claimed that a pounds 9,400 legal bill had not been declared in his election expenses. Inspection of the declaration shows this to be the case.

But Mr Bell, who was elected to the Tatton seat after Labour and Lib- Dems withdrew their candidates, said he had only become aware of the bill two days ago. He said there was no reason the money should have been declared as an election expense, as he had not been an official candidate at the time.

"If I had not taken legal advice, I would have been blown out of the water," he said.

Mr Bell, who famously beat former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton by a majority of more than 11,000, took legal advice after Mr Hamilton threatened legal action over the former BBC journalist's plan to describe himself on the ballot paper as an "anti-corruption" candidate. Mr Hamilton wrote to Mr Bell, claiming the description was defamatory.

Yesterday Mr Hamilton seized on the controversy and said Mr Bell should resign. "I think this exposes what we knew all along - that Mr Bell is a hypocritical fraud," he said. "He was posing as an independent ... but his campaign was managed by Labour spin doctors, his legal expenses were paid by them and none of this was revealed." He said he had not incurred any legal fees, as he had written the letter himself.

Opinions at Westminster differed last night on whether the affair would blow over. Mr Bell himself described it as a "small storm in a small teacup". But Mr Hamilton said that while he was not looking to launch a legal challenge against Mr Bell, it would only take one complaint from a constituent to trigger an investigation.

Mr Bell said that, if there was to be a by-election, he would consider his position. Mr Hamilton said he would not stand. The Tatton Conservative Association said it would not consider either Mr Hamilton or his wife Christine as candidates.

The acting returning officer for the Borough of Macclesfield, Brian Longden, said any challenge to election expenses had to be made in a petition to the courts by a local voter or else a candidate. "It is outside the scope of the returning officer to carry out an investigation."

Joe Jacob, Law Professor at the London School of Economics, told the BBC : "I would be gobsmacked if Bell were held legally liable."