Election `97: The white knight slips into the shadows

Bell now gets hardly a glance, says Robin Stummer. Is sleaze history?
Click to follow
Indy Politics
As a dodgem car driver, Martin Bell is without peer. Having eased himself behind the steering wheel at Friday's fair on Knutsford Heath, he revealed himself to be as skilled at guiding his vehicle away from collision and around obstacles as he has been at gently nudging his anti- sleaze campaign to spectacular victory. And here, barely 100 yards from the site of the infamous "ambush", the new MP had a force arguably darker and more potent than even the Hamiltons to contend with - two dozen Tatton teenagers displaying early symptoms of road rage. Nasty.

It was not, perhaps, the best place for Bell to meet his new constituents, but in some respects it was the most apt. Wandering with his "belles" through the crowded, surreal landscape of flashing lights and distorted noise, he appeared to be reliving the media blitz that had ended barely 14 hours previously when he retired to bed, exhausted and elected.

Unlike that morning however, when crowds greeted Bell with all the rapture afforded de Gaulle entering Paris in 1944, not everyone recognised him or wanted to shake hands. Could it be that sleaze is already history? Stopping briefly to be photographed with the May queen and pink candy floss, Bell looked glazed and vaguely uncomfortable - disturbingly like, well, a British MP.

After a gut-churning spin on the Sea Storm ride with his daughter, Melissa, he made for the sanctuary of the Long View Hotel, birthplace of his campaign, for a quiet dinner.

When the former war correspondent arrived on unfamiliar, potentially hostile territory, he anticipated that his would be "the shortest political career ever". Yet, in three weeks, Bell managed to turn sleaze-sodden Tatton into Trumpton triumphant. Statistics bear out the scale of the achievement of the Clean Machine - or Clean Contraption as Bell preferred to call it, finding the word machine unreasonably "efficient". The contraption wiped out a notional Tory majority of 22,000, and coasted home by 11,000 votes, in no more time than it takes to have a few white suits dry-cleaned. But the spirit of what Bell only half-jokingly calls a "people's insurgency" manifested itself in myriad small, very English ways.

For example, the elderly woman cyclist, looking as if she belonged in John Major's lost village idylls, who called out "well done, well done, I hope you win!" as she rode past; the philosophical postmen dissecting the Hamiltons over an evening pint ("He's never had any time for the working man, you know"); the polite euphoria that greeted Bell campaigners on a pair of council estates in Wilmslow on polling day, resulting there in a turnout believed to be as high as 90 per cent; the fact that Bell was universally referred to as "Mr Bell", while Hamilton remained "Hamilton". By the end of the campaign it was the Hamiltons, not their war reporter opponent, who seemed to belong in another country.

And what now for Neil Hamilton? For much of last week he maintained that should he lose, he would, like Tatton's own Terminator, "be back". His friends in the Conservative Party would eventually rally round to help breathe new life into what Mrs Hamilton is wont to refer to as his "career". In the last, desperate days of the campaign, the couple had been seen in animated conversation with a rival candidate - Miss Moneypenny, the seven foot birdcage-wearing transvestite. The Hamiltons liked Miss Moneypenny. Now however, the only allies he had left in the party nationally have gone, most notably Michael Portillo. The Hamiltons' legacy to their constituency party is deep, bitter division.

"About two-thirds of the party are still in favour of the Hamiltons, about one-third against them," a former local party member said. "We have to rethink our positions, and that two-thirds will shrink in time.

"Christine Hamilton accused Bell of wanting to destroy her husband's career. But being an MP is not a `career'. It is a short-term contract with the people, nothing else."

Tatton was fought and won on issues of accountability and trust. Whether this amounts to a brief clearing of the clouds, or a more profound change in the political climate, remains to be seen.

"It will be interesting to see," said Bell on Friday, "whether you can be a practising MP and continue to tell the truth. I am about to find out."