Politics: I was an innocent, says Bell, as former colleagues give him a grilling

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The Independent Online
"Even a war zone is easier than this" muttered a besieged Martin Bell as he sat down to face some hard questioning from former colleagues at a press conference in his cramped constituency office in Knutsford.

He was clearly nervous and uncomfortable in front of the massed ranks of cameras and lights, and his voice wavered at times as answers were demanded to the questions about legal expenses of pounds 9,400 paid by the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties during his general election campaign.

"I honestly did not know about them until two days ago" he said, with a pleading for understanding in his voice.

Mr Bell maintained that legal fees were normally declared as campaign expenses and he asked why, as an independent MP, he should be singled out in this way.

No one else he argued, had been asked to declare their legal expenses. He was asked if Conservatives would have voted for him had they known Labour and the Liberal Democrats had paid his legal fees. He answered that people knew that both of those parties had withdrawn their candidates in his favour.

"Who have I upset ... I ask you to speculate ... I didn't like this news. If I had known then I would have found a way of declaring it ... The playing field is tilted against a citizen MP. If any good comes out of this it will be a reform of the electoral law."

The questioning became harder, he was almost shouted at by those who wanted to know how could he have been so naive to think legal advice would be free.

"If I was a political innocent ... I am not so innocent now" he said. "I was not in the backroom I was out there campaigning."

A heavy document was thrust at him by a journalist who said he had worked on the cash-for-questions scandal and that what he was handing to him was proof that Neil Hamilton had done no wrong. "I will look at it" whispered a rattled Mr Bell.

The MP wanted to take comfort in the support of his constituents. "I have only had one letter of complaint in eight months. That's not bad."

It was soon clear Mr Bell had had enough though. He said he believed a mountain was being made out of a molehill, or it was a storm in teacup, and if he was still on the other side of the camera he would have told his news editor so.

Still, the same questions about his failure to declare the legal fees as campaign expenses kept coming, and he muttered "We could go on up and down this all morning."

Soon he was on his feet but still stopping briefly to answer individual questions and to be interviewed outside for television in the late morning chill, with onlookers nodding their recognition of the man in the white suit.

- Esther Leach

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