Church-fearing Tories sound alarm Bell

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In a nuclear bunker in the Essex countryside, battle plans are being drawn up for a war of words that could become one of the highlights of the next general election.

In a nuclear bunker in the Essex countryside, battle plans are being drawn up for a war of words that could become one of the highlights of the next general election.

Here, in this macabre tourist attraction, Keith Brown is preparing for the arrival of the Man in the White Suit, Martin Bell, the man many people in Brentwood and Ongar would like to be their next MP.

Mr Brown is friend and PR consultant to Eric Pickles, the sitting Tory MP, who may be pitched into the ring against the self-styled parliamentary sleazebuster, and he is getting ready for a fight.

When Mr Bell fought Neil Hamilton, the Tory at the centre of the cash-for-questions scandal, in Tatton in 1997, he vowed to stay for just one term. Now that is coming to an end, and the former BBC correspondent is being asked by voters and politicians up and down the country to stand against their incumbent. But in Brentwood and Ongar, the constituency many political observers believe Mr Bell might opt for, there is nothing sleazy about Eric Pickles. Voters like him so much that at the last election, while other Tory MPs crumbled, they returned him with a 9,690 majority.

Instead, Mr Bell is being asked to take up arms against a charismatic Christian church which has shaken up the local Tory party and cost die-hard Tories their hold on power.

Members of the Peniel Pentecostal Church, led by Bishop Michael Reid, a tall Mercedes-driving former policeman and insurance salesman, began to make their presence felt in 1998. About 120 of its 800-strong congregation were enrolled as Conservatives and the chairwoman of their local council ward, Pilgrim's Hatch, was deposed. Since then, members of the church have moved into a second ward, may have a majority now in the Conservative women's group and one of their number has been elected deputy chairman of the local Conservative Association.

Concern among ousted Tories - who have formed an Independent Conservative group - is that the Peniel influence in the Conservative Association could result in them choosing candidates to run as their MP. The Tories have asked Mr Bell for help. He says he is interested, but the Pickles camp is unmoved.

"It would be ridiculous for him to stand here," said Mr Brown, whose office is in the nuclear bunker. "He puts himself up as someone who would fight corrupt MPs. Eric is certainly not that. Bell is beginning to look a bit like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills."

If Mr Bell contests the seat, much will be made of the fact that Mr Brown is a member of the church, having joined several years ago.

Former church members say they pay a 10 per cent tithe on their income and encouraged to buy insurance policies from MacArtney and Dowie, a brokerage firm of which Bishop Reid is a director (he has seven directorships). In Bishop Reid's office, walls are adorned with pictures of him with the controversial American evangelist Oral Roberts and the Nigerian Archbishop Benson Idahosa, who gave consecrated him as bishop.

On the lawn is a 40mm anti-aircraft gun from the old carrier Ark Royal, donated by the Royal Navy and nearby is the Peniel Academy, a hugely successful school for 150 pupils housed in a £1.3m Georgian mansion.

On Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the congregation gathers inside the church, which is more like a small arena with a stage and television lighting. Bishop Reid delivers loud performances, distinguished for their forthright lack of sympathy towards other churches, perverts and homosexuals, and invites the sick to be cured. The church claims to see regular miracles.

Yesterday Anne Brown (no relation), the bishop's spokeswoman, insisted the church had no intention to dominate local politics. "This all started because we got a new member who is crazy about politics; he loves it," she said. "He's one of about 100 people in our choir and he asked everyone to vote for him because he wanted to be chairman of the local ward.

"You'll find that most Christians are conservative by nature because of the teachings of the Bible, so they did vote for him. We think it's important for Christians to become involved in their community, so what's wrong with getting into politics? But we have no intention of taking control."

Judy Gray, the deposed chairwoman, has been ejected from the party. "I'm one of those who asked Martin Bell to come in. He's a man of honesty and integrity and I think he could probably succeed here."

In Brentwood, the nearest town, people are wary of the church. Many believe its members are trying to influence politics and say they would vote for Mr Bell. But Eric Pickles thinks he could see off a challenge.

"If I thought for one moment that these people were in a position to have any influence, I'd ask Central Office to suspend the local party," he said.

"I have repeatedly asked the Independents to come up with evidence of wrongdoing but they haven't. If Martin Bell came for me, he would have to come charging, otherwise he'd just stand there like a statue, benefiting from the accusations of somebody else's sleaze."

Mr Bell will make up his mind next month. "If I stand, there would be no negative campaigning and no personal attacks or criticism of anyone's church," he said.

But with a 10,000 majority to overturn and no other politicians to attack, one suspects the knight in shining armour might come unseated if he were to ride into Essex.