Bellisimo! How We Took Tatton
Doggart, Sebastian, New Statesman (1996)
Martin Bell's victory over Neil Hamilton was the most remarkable personal drama of the election campaign. Sebastian Doggart was there.
Tuesday 8 April
I fax my cv to Martin and offer my services. Like him, I was educated at King's College Cambridge and met him a year ago at the carol service. I feel an irresistible urge to help him unseat Neil Hamilton and steer clear of Labour and Lib Dem attempts to manipulate him and compromise his independence.
Thursday 17 April
I drive to Knutsford in the heart of Manchester's BMW belt. Bell's campaign headquarters are a cross between a Montessori classroom and Vogue House. There are coffee cups, UN-style Bell posters and Bell's Belles: Melissa, Martin's 24-year-old daughter, plus two Sophies and an Antonia. I start work, putting stickers on posters.
"Who exactly asked you up here," says a grey-bearded man called David.
I name Anthony, who invited me to join the campaign and whom I have seen walking into the back office. David leads me to a bank of labelled pigeon holes: "Can you identify the name of the man who invited you here? There is no authorised Anthony. I think you'd better go out into the street until this is sorted out." Alan, the Labour Party adviser, warns me not to attempt to enter the back office.
At that moment Anthony appears. It is clear that David knows him and they go into a huddle, which ends with David saying: "Well, you do what you like with him, but it's on your head." Anthony takes me for a walk and explains the anxiety about infiltration by Hamilton spies: "Do you swear that you have never had any formal links to the Conservative campaign or to Neil Hamilton?"
Anthony goes off to make check calls on me while I am allowed to continue working in the front office. Before long I am manning the front desk, taking donations from the public and second-guessing Martin's views on issues from the rights of the unborn child to the second ranway at Manchester airport.
Anthony at last emerges to tell me I am clean, just as Martin arrives. His beige suit is crumpled and he limps from his shrapnel injury in Bosnia. I introduce myself and he welcomes me on board.
Anxious to pursue my embryonic career as a spin-doctor, I suggest that we use a white ribbon as a symbol. Anthony hands me Martin's draft policy statement and asks me to expand it from 300 words to 1,000. He states his intention to "remove the stain of corruption from public life", but gives no indication how. He says he is "sceptical about European political union. We are an island people. That is our strength and our character." Warning bells ring: this is Portillo speak.
I write my suggestions in longhand, proposing reforms to the Parliamentary Standards and Privileges Committee and to cut the salary of Sir Gordon Downey.
Friday 18 April
The Hamiltons are heading towards our office; he garnished with a big blue rosette and chequered blazer, topaz-eyed and drooping chin. This is my first sight of the "enemy". Nell is accompanied by his irrepressible wife, Christine, two blue-rinses, and a media melee. When he reaches our campaign headquarters, I tell him Martin is not in. He grimaces and hands over a white envelope: yet another legal threat.
Bell's Belles have invited me to dinner and I feel mildly flattered to have been let into such an exclusive cabal. Sipping chardonnay, the 18-year-old office manager Sophie is plotting some serious head-count reduction. One volunteer should be sent home immediately for drunkenness; another is clearly a spy. A few glasses down the line, I foolishly venture: "The Labour and Lib Dem guys in the back room are a time-bomb. If Hamilton discovers they're there, he could use it to say Martin is a stooge." The Belies' faces drop.
Saturday 19 April
An article in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland says we're running something "closer to a Blue Peter appeal than a guerrilla campaign". …