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The Battle for Putney

"Politics is too serious to be left to career politicians" Sir James Goldsmith; "This bored millionaire seeks power without responsibility" David Mellor, M.P.
You harlot! You charlatan!

Centuries ago, Cromwell's soldiers argued in a Putney church about freedom:

today it is again the scene of a bitter dogfight about democracy.

Chris Blackhurst tells the story

Someone is bugging David Mellor. The Conservative MP for Putney, football chat show host and millionaire consultant is convinced, in the parlance of the gumshoe trade, that someone is turning him over.

A few months ago, his office received a phone call. The caller said he had a cheque for pounds 8,000 from Chelsfield, one of the MP's many business interests, and wanted to know where it should be sent. The MP's office gave out his account number at Lloyds Bank in Wareham, Dorset.

No cheque for pounds 8,000 was ever paid into his personal account. Instead, Lloyds Bank in Wareham was rung up by someone posing as an employee of Mr Mellor and asking for details of his confidential bank arrangements. The caller pretended to be checking up on standing orders on the account. The information was duly given. When he found out, Mr Mellor moved his account to Coutts.

Then, not long after, his office outside the Commons in central London was broken into. His secretary's door was smashed and office equipment taken.

Suspecting that the incidents are linked, Mr Mellor has paid pounds 1,000 to have his sumptuous house at London's St Katherine's Dock swept for electronic bugs. No listening devices were found. Even so, a report on Mr Mellor's business activities and private finances has been prepared and shown to journalists.

Nobody will own up to writing the report. When contacted by The Independent, a London private detective agency denied all knowledge. The firm's managing- director said they did not do bugging - odd, since we never mentioned bugging - but added they had nothing to do with a campaign against Mr Mellor.

For Mr Mellor, this interest in his business dealings and an attempt to get them into the public domain, however coincidental, could not come at a more awkward time. For Mr Mellor - "David" to all his callers on Six-0-Six on Radio Five - is facing the political battle of his life.

Putney, where inner city and leafy suburbia merge in south-west London, is set to witness the gladiatorial contest of the next general election. In one corner, Mr Mellor, former Cabinet Minister, blokeish, Chelsea supporter, opera-lover, friend of John Major. In the other, Sir James Goldsmith, tycoon, mixer with the rich and famous, takeover king, stalker of the world's stock markets and currencies, leader of the Referendum Party.

Both men have characteristics in common. They are rich - Sir James is a billionaire, Mr Mellor a mere millionaire. They have been unfaithful to their wives. They are articulate, good speakers and know how to court publicity. Both like mixing it.

It was partly because of his relish for a fight that Sir James chose to stand in Putney. Neighbouring Richmond seemed a likelier place. Lady Annabel, his wife, lives and raised their children at Ormeley Lodge near Richmond Park. The wedding of his daughter, Jemima, to Imran Khan, and the subsequent party, was a glittering Richmond occasion. His ecologist brother, Teddy, lives locally.

Against him in Richmond would have been Jeremy Hanley, the gaffe-prone former Tory Party chairman. Even allowing for boundary changes, Mr Hanley's majority, 3,869, would still have been far less than Mr Mellor's 7,526.

Instead, Sir James chose Putney and Mr Mellor. Putney, so Sir James's thinking went, was close enough for him to enjoy almost the same benefits as if he had fought Richmond. It was also near enough for his London-based supporters to rally round. Mellor is a leading wet, a loud proponent of Europe. As a friend of the Prime Minister his scalp would be just as great, if not greater, than the increasingly low-key Mr Hanley. "Putney was seen as a seat where there would be lively debate," said a member of Sir James's staff.

Which is one way of putting it. Already there is every sign theirs will be the most vicious scrap of the next election. From Mr Mellor: "He is quick to take umbrage at attacks on his own pedigree, though these are inevitable given Goldsmith's peculiar political past and obvious lack of commitment to the country he now claims to want to save. Goldsmith the businessman was wildly successful and worthy of respect. Goldsmith the politician is something else, an undoubted eccentric whose maverick opinions have veered erratically from obsession to obsession." Sir James's much-publicised interest in the environment made him "an eco-freak."

Sir James, continued Mr Mellor, is an "unwarranted intrusion in an election that should be about the preoccupations of normal people - their jobs, their children's education, their healthcare and their tax rates. The sad truth is that this bored billionaire seeks power without responsibility. And that, as Stanley Baldwin pointed out 60 years ago, has been the prerogative of the harlot down the ages."

Sir James's public utterances about Mr Mellor are more restrained. Off the record, his staff do not mince their words but in public, their boss contents himself with comments such as that Mr Mellor is engaging in "personal abuse and he seems to have forgotten that that is the traditional refuge of the political charlatan", and "recent evidence has forced me to conclude that politics is too serious to be left to career politicians."

Another reason for Sir James's preferment of Putney could, of course, be what he can throw at Mr Mellor. No MP has had more inches of tabloid space devoted to him than the Member for Putney. At the same time, few MPs have more outside commercial interests and, it probably follows, few MPs have made as much money from their consultancies and directorships.

Whenever "back to basics" is mentioned, up pops Mr Mellor as the antithesis. The famous photograph of him posing with his wife and children when he admitted to having an affair with an actress will haunt him for ever.

Mr Mellor's wife, Judith, remains a deeply popular figure in Putney. Stoic and short of sight, she has had to endure a lot in her errant husband's pursuit of his career. Mr Mellor's recent decision to sell his marital home at Westhorpe Road and move out of the constituency to set up house with Lady Cobham did not endear him to locals.

Against that background, Sir James believes he is in with a chance, if not of taking the seat, of at least giving Mr Mellor a serious run for his money. He may be right: a recent opinion poll suggested that up to 50 per cent of voters in Putney would consider backing him. Disaffected Tories run his Putney campaign. On Saturday, at the Referendum Party's conference in Brighton, at least 30 of his Putney followers are expected to make the trip, making them the biggest constituency delegation.

Mr Mellor has his supporters too. Four of them tried to crash a Goldsmith meeting at the exclusive Roehampton Club and planned to photograph Tory defectors intent on keeping their support for Referendum secret. They were rumbled but their struggle continues.

As to who is investigating him, Mr Mellor says he has no idea. It could be someone with an axe to grind from his myriad business dealings. It could be a journalist, a mercenary deciding to target him to see what turns up. If Mr Mellor has his suspicions he is keeping them to himself. Sir James's team are happy to make it clear it is not their man. "James Goldsmith has made it absolutely clear he has absolutely zero interest in any aspect of David Mellor's personal or private life," said a source close to Sir James. "We leave all personal abuse to Mr Mellor." Well, almost all.

Putney was the place where radicals from Cromwell's army first debated the meaning of democracy; today, with Mellor standing for traditional party politics and Goldsmith asserting that the EU is subverting British democracy, there is a serious side to the extraordinary grudge match being played out there. Will voters notice it? They certainly have an entertaining spectacle coming, followed by a rum choice. And they may, of course, eventually plump for: neither of the above.