Election '97: Smiley and the clean machine

Robin Stummer finds Martin Bell's camp charged with sleaze
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Indy Politics
At Last a friendly voice offered heart-felt sympathy for Neil Hamilton. "It's noxious," said the man in the leather jacket and ear-ring, "that the editor of the Guardian should be determining what happens in Tatton". A murmur of approval broke out among the half-dozen tweedy party faithful who braved a chill Thursday evening to hear the embattled Conservative candidate address his first campaign meeting. That such staunch backing came not from a landowner or businessman, but from, of all things, a Living Marxism journalist, delighted Hamilton. But then Hamilton welcomes any support - comrades, county set or chickens.

Good will, at least, hasn't been a problem for Martin Bell. His celebrity supporters now include four Johns - comedians Fortune and Bird, who have written a sketch based on the battle for Tatton, "Smiley" Le Carre and "Shoot to Kill" Stalker. In what may prove the crucial star endorsement, however, Bell now has a letter and cheque for pounds 100 from Sir Alec Guinness. After a shaky start the logistics of ad hoc politics have fallen into place, too.

Derided by opponents and the occasional disenchanted campaign worker as "shambolic" and "amateur", the Clean Machine has clunked into top gear. At the Bell headquarters in Knutsford, two dozen middle-aged, middle-class helpers from a volunteer army numbering 350 pack envelopes, sort out posters, or chatter excitedly with all the unrestrained glee of Munchkins who've just found out the Wicked Witch of the North-west is dead. Only he, or she, isn't.

Until yesterday, the Hamiltons had been shunning the doorsteps and streets of North Cheshire, content to leave the chore of hard campaigning in the hands of party activists. A dentist's waiting-room silence permeates the austere, red-brick Tory offices, two minutes' walk from the rival headquarters.

"Everything's fine, no problems," says Peter McDowell, Mr Hamilton's agent, grimly. "The anecdotal evidence is that the Tory vote is holding up. The Hamiltons have lived here for 14 years. I mean, the idea that this guy can just parachute in... This is a Conservative seat - always has been, and always will be."

A letter Mr McDowell sent last week to key party workers contains the exhortation: "You are wonderful. But keep it up! Think of that result next Thursday and how sweet it will be to have beaten these ghastly people who are ranged against us. We are up against the worst elements in British society - the media." Living Marxism is clearly an exception.

"There are signs of desperation in the Bell campaign," says Mr McDowell, earnestly. "One lady awoke to find a Bell poster stuck in her rockery." Conservatives claim their posters have been vandalised "in a fairly organised way", and that copies of the book Sleaze, which deals with the cash-for- questions affair, have been mysteriously dropping on to doormats with the injunction to read it and pass it on. The Bell camp strongly denies any involvement in such sleazy activities, pointing out that it has had to adopt thorough vetting procedures for all volunteers and had rumbled two "Hamilton plants". All this comes on top of a simmering fax war, waged over the past 10 days by Mr Hamilton and Mr McDowell and consisting of a series of legal threats over Bell's use of the word "corruption" and the "over-enthusiastic" siting of posts on Knutsford Heath.

If it weren't for the small matter of Thursday's vote, Bell could claim victory - he won the hearts of Tatton days ago, most minds too. But the soul of this deeply blue constituency remains obscure. Campaigning in Wilmslow and Knutsford, he found a large proportion of the electorate still undecided.

"The campaign is going well," he said as he met commuters at Wilmslow railway station, white umbrella at the ready, beige suit a little tired. "But if people are saying they are not committed we think they are probably Hamilton voters." The Tories have a majority of 22,000 and Bell will need at least one-third of Tory voters to come over to him, as well as the Lib Dem and Labour vote.

Last week, Ladbrokes was offering odds of 5-6 on a Hamilton victory and barometers in local pubs were stuck on change. Any other clues?

Three. One, a farmer, a former Tory voter, putting a Bell placard on his land despite being surrounded by three large estates bristling with Hamilton signs. Two, Mrs Ann Morgan, a Conservative Party member for 25 years. "I'm voting for the party, not the man," she said. "He should step down." Three, a woman who describes herself as a "very tired teacher": "Around here," she said to Bell, "people think if it moves and it's blue - vote for it. But I wish you luck."