Leading Article: Why Mr Hamilton should stand and fight

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The Independent Online
It would be in the interests of democracy for the Tatton Conservative Association to vote tonight to adopt Neil Hamilton as its candidate in the election. Then the people can decide the "sleaze" issue. Is Mr Hamilton guilty of no more than minor "misjudgements", as he insists, or has he, like Tim Smith, put himself beyond the ethical standards expected of our representatives?

In all probability, judged on that basis, the voters of the formerly safe Tory Cheshire constituency will turf Mr Hamilton out. Not only would that outcome give most of the rest of the country great satisfaction; it would also result in the election of an extraordinary MP. Martin Bell, the white knight who charged for the cause of a moral foreign policy in Bosnia, would sit as an independent member (a touchingly old-fashioned concept, but no worse for that) with a mandate to raise ethical standards in public life.

Mr Bell's decision to stand is to be applauded unreservedly. There are only two conceivable objections to this choice of an anti-sleaze candidate. One is that he is a journalist, a member of the only profession that is about as loathed and distrusted as politicians. But he is a foreign correspondent, which most consumers of the public prints seem to think is something quite different, either from the doorstepping tabloid hacks or the ratpacking Westminster lobby. So, though not perfect, Mr Bell is more acceptable than most journalists would be.

The other objection is that Mr Bell is guilty of inflating his own ego. The answer to that is that anyone who wants to be an MP must be touched by some measure of egotism. The issue is the degree of derangement, and whether it is a madness that serves the general good. On those tests Mr Bell, a crusading member of life's awkward squad, more than passes muster.

It is not only that Mr Bell is the right man: the whole crazy venture is very much to be welcomed. When Jon Kelly, the Labour candidate, first announced his willingness to stand down in favour of a cross-party candidate, the Conservatives dismissed it as a "gimmick". Indeed, it seemed like a good idea dreamt up by Tony Blair's adept and professional PR team, which would keep the spotlight on the sleaze issue for another few days. Now that a credible cross-party candidate has emerged, it is obvious that there is more to it than a mere media stunt. The historic resonances of an independent candidate standing with joint Labour and Liberal Democrat support are too strong to dismiss as a gimmick. It was significant that the two parties chose to field Peter Mandelson and Lord Holme to speak for Mr Bell on television on Sunday night: they represent their parties' coalitionist wings.

And as a ploy, this one has worked. It has embarrassed the Prime Minister excruciatingly. Yesterday it was possible almost to feel sorry for him as he insisted yet again that Mr Hamilton was a matter for the Tatton Conservative Association. And Mr Bell? Well, Mr Bell was a matter for Mr Bell. If Mr Major had been asked about education policy, no doubt that would have been a matter for Tatton Conservative Association, too.

It is less easy to feel sorry for Mr Hamilton, but he has been made to look a fool. Not satisfied with speaking only through his wife, Christine, he yesterday chose to embarrass himself further by speaking through Bill Roache, the Coronation Street actor.

The spectacle is becoming so bizarre that there is a danger of losing sight of the central issue. It is this: Mr Hamilton is accused of accepting cash to ask questions, an accusation he denies. He must be presumed innocent until he is proved guilty - but John Major must be presumed guilty of deliberately postponing Sir Gordon Downey's quasi-judicial process, which could have decided the issue before the election. Nevertheless, Mr Hamilton has admitted tax evasion and failing to register financial interests, including free stays at the Paris Ritz. On these grounds alone, Mr Major should have refused to endorse him as the Tory candidate.

The Labour-Liberal Democrat ploy has also worked in another sense. Yesterday the polling company ICM, which had carried out a poll in Tatton last week, re-interviewed nearly 300 voters to ask them how they would vote now that the identity of the anti-sleaze candidate was known. It indicated that an overwhelming majority would vote for Mr Bell. The ICM poll also suggested that if Mr Hamilton stood down, the Tories would hold the seat easily.

Unfortunately, this ought to be enough to ensure that the Tatton association dumps him tonight; but local associations are not always wise in their judgements.

The Conservatives, especially those trying to persuade Mr Hamilton to go, argue that sleaze is a distraction from the "real" issues. They are wrong. Sleaze is a real issue. It matters a great deal to the health of our democracy. It may prove to be a fair summary of 18 years of Tory rule that, in the end, the Conservative lost partly because they could not get any other argument across, they were so distracted by sleaze.

If people do not trust their politicians, then democracy will be eaten away by cynicism. So join us in an appeal to the Tatton Tories. Keep Mr Hamilton. Make him stay and fight. Let us have a full debate in this election campaign about standards in public life. And may the worst man lose.