The Battle for Knutsford. Election 1997
It will be soon time for the date of the British General election to be fixed. Tony Blair has been rehearsing making a fool of himself already appearing on his own TV debate while William Hague has been flexing his own ladish muscles with a few TV appearances of his own, mainly Jeremy Clarkson. 14 pints eh?
Television exposure will play a major part in the next general election. However if you are already a competent media darling you will have it made as Martin Bell found out in 1997.
I recently met up with a local member of the Flashman Soc. and through the course of the evening the topic of conversation turned to politics. We had been discussing the finer points of the Neil Hamilton/ Mohamed al-Fayed case and their relationship which led to the cash for questions fiasco and the
'undeclared' stays at the Paris Ritz at Mr al-Fayed's expense etc. The member, who wishes to remain anonymous, related a story that solves the riddle of how one the most headline catching events in Britain's recent political history and memorable events of the last general election came to be.
The 'Battle of Knutsford' when Martin Bell and Neil Hamilton met head to head on the green in front Martin's hotel, the Long View Hotel, Knutsford. All part of the bigger battle for the Tatton seat, with characters straight out of central casting, providing a near-perfect encapsulation of the Labour party's chosen national campaign themes. The plot was a simple one: plucky, unsullied goodie vs tired old 'allegedly' sleaze-ridden baddie.
All be it that Martin was an independent and probably didn't want to give Labour such a big hand up. On one side was the perpetually white-suited Martin Bell, uncertain in person, running a ramshackle campaign, fragrant daughter by his side
(Melissa). On the other was Neil Hamilton, belligerently unrepentant Tory ex-minister at the centre of the cash-for-questions scandal, accompanied by a scary wife (Christine).
This is the gist of what the inebriated Flashman Society member said: "Everyone knows about the Ritz thing and have made up their own minds about the rights and wrongs of Neil and Mr al-Fayed, but did you know about Martin Bell and his 'friend' Arkan: A killer and a murderer? Did you know Martin Bell said he was charming?
Our story teller was referring to the Balkan conflict. Bell reported widely on the wars in the Balkans and he recalled his encounters with Arkan, the Serbian paramilitary leader and gangster who was assassinated in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel. Martin said that in spite of Arkan's reputation as 'killer and a murderer' he regarded the suspected war criminal as 'a friend' - sometimes - "frightening and sometimes charming. "
"I think it depends on how you define friendship," he told the BBC's Today programme. "I don't think you necessarily have to feel moral approval of people whose company you enjoy."
"He had a great surface charm" Mr Bell said, "he had a raw military courage. . .of course, the man's a killer, but I need access and he provided access so over the years we had a pretty good working relationship."
Do you think the jury in the al-Fayed case, or the committee investigating into the so called 'cash for questions' considered working relationships when they decided against Hamilton? No. Depends what you want out of a working relationship doesn't it? I mean so-called business lunches or that kind of 'entertaini.ng' in business isn't supposed to go on now is it? that's rubbish - do you know how many Golf clubs there are in Cheshire? Mind you, you don't get too many murderous paramilitaries on the green. Plenty of media types all talking shop though! Talking of Cheshire; Do you know who caused the battle of Knutsford? I did. Not out of spite or anything it was an accident! I'd met Neil Hamilton before that occasion, twice I think. I've worked all over Cheshire with various businesses. I remember Mr Hamilton opening a building for someone. I was called out to the Long view hotel, in April I think
a few weeks before the election in May '97. They wanted phones setting up for Martin Bell's campaign. They wanted the phones in the basement Bar of all places!
Did you know all Martin's Friends turned up wearing those ghastly white jackets? There was a British Colonel who knew Martin from Gorazde, his ex-wife. Oh -and his daughter, a very nice looking girl. She didn't wear one of those jackets wouldn't have suited her figure anyway! Charming girl... She asked me to get her a drink when I was working down in that basement bar. I couldn't serve of
course I didn't exactly work there. It was tempting, we had a nice chat anyway. They didn't have a full license in hotel the bar then; but Martin made sure everyone a drink. Even me -while I was banging away noisily behind the bar; at the woodwork that was in the way of the cables.
Anyway, there was chaos, TV and newsmen running around all over the place. All sorts had been happening, Martin was supposed to be an anti 'sleaze' candidate, but Neil Hamilton was threatening legal action because of that stance, one of Martin's campaign staff had resigned because
he had no political views! That morning the Liberal candidate was visiting; Labour and the Liberals had withdrawn to give Martin a clear run at Hamilton, a bit unfair I thought.
The Liberal bloke, was this scrawny little fella. Looked like an odd Welsh Maths teacher I had once. He was about fifty in a terrible tweedy brown jacket, with leather patches on the elbows. Anyway, it was chaos, the phones were ringing all the time and the hotel manager was running
around trying to fit everybody in. There was no-one to answer the phones, so I thought I'd be helpful and picked up the phone. It didn't register what the girl was actually saying until afterwards, she sounded nice I thought I'd help. I remember the words clear enough now.
"Hello, this is ST? from the Conservative Club, (Neil Hamilton's headquarters.) What time is the Press conference?" I told her to hang on and stuck my head out the office door, the hotel Manager went past looking hassled so I let him go. Martin was hovering by the reception, probably waiting for someone to open up the bar again.
"Martin? What time's the conference?"
"About two O'clock."
"Oh great, where is it by the way?"
"Outside, across the road, on the green - the big field there."
Back in the office I picked up the phone and related the details. I put the phone down, Martin was coming past the door.
"Who was it`?" He enquired cheerfully.
I suddenly froze, the meaning of the words I'd heard on the phone suddenly dawned on me. I croaked then said, "I think it was the local paper."
About an hour later everyone was crowded into the basement bar. I was still cursing trying to get the phone working, and getting nowhere. I listened to what was going on. Martin, his campaign manager and the liberal ex-candidate had just sat down together.
"Right then what's the dirt on Hamilton? What's he done, locally I mean what can we get on him?" That was the campaign Manager, he also said something about clean campaigning being nonsense. The Liberal guy, I forget his name, was about to spill the beans if not his pint down the front
of his ridiculous jacket. He had been going on about how Martin couldn't lose now, he was very excitable. The fact was a Miss Moneypenny (A transvestite) of the Transformer party running for the Tatton seat. In fact I think she, or he, was Martin's only real rival in Knutsford, its no wonder Martin won. Anyway the .liberal guy was interrupted by someone ran downstairs shouting.
"He's here! He's outside now!"
"What? Neil Hamilton, outside. . .here?" There was an almighty rush up the tiny flight of stairs, the press, Martin, the whole company and me caught up in the flow wondering if I should leave quietly or tell them is was my fault? If I had the sense I would have stayed behind and finished off all the
abandoned drinks, I'd needed something to steady my nerves.
Outside the press didn't know which way to go, half of them nearly got run over. They just charged off across the road desperate to get there first. I went along with the crowd, which was growing very fast, people seemed to be descending from all directions, some stopping and jumping out their cars to see what was happening. In a matter of seconds we were all pressed around Martin, his wife and Neit Hamilton with his wife. The press has labelled Christine Hamilton a battleaxe, a dragon and a lioness, but to her &iends she is "Rose Invincible". The nickname comes from the rose - a tribute to the
Falklands Task Force - which the Hamiltons used as a buttonhole on their wedding day in 1983. Apparently the Hamiltons wrote a book after all of this, for the Christmas market, they needed the cash, it was called the 'Battleaxes of Britain!'
Somehow I ended up right at the front of the press around the Martin and Neil. Damn! I thought they were both going to look at me and have the crowd rip my arms off Neil exactly
looked at me and opened his mouth, I'm sure he was going to exclaim and demand to know what I was doing there, but his wife was off and exclaiming her husband's virtue before anything was said. She was bawling above the noise of the crowd, which started pushing as soon as they heard someone
speaking, a forest of arms went up each gripping a hand held tape recorder or microphone. The noise of the murmuring crowd was incredible when mixed with the clicking of camera's.
Neil looked pretty triumphant, as his wife lay down the law, Martin looked terrified, and I don't blame him either the air was foul with anticipation. I expected someone to start chanting scrap, scrap, scrap! Like they used to at school, but instead the camera's just clicked away like mad, which is far worse a noise.
I don't remember much else, Martin said his piece, he mumbled something about the campaign, turned to try and speak to the cameras. He Iooked more haggard then than he ever did on the battlefield in Bosnia.
There was other exchange of words with Christine Hamilton, then he and his company turned tail and ran. As soon as I realised it was over I legged it for the hotel, I got there before Martin who crossed the road further down. He was trying to take a calmer pace than I did. It was odd seeing that bunch of white jacketed have-a-go hero's milling along in a bunch pursued by a group of photographers. White Jackets; the janitors of politics, or cor-don-bleu chefs to the hypocritical media masses.
I grabbed my brief case and tools and went out the side door of the hotel, and hot footed it down the road. I stopped in horror to see Neil Hamilton practically park his arse on the bonnet of my car while he chatted to some more journalists. It was unavoidable, I turned cold, my guts dissolved but stuck my chin out and waved a cheery a 'hello!' I rushed up to the back of the car dumped my stuff in the boot, they were still talking as I shuffled up to the group to get into the car. The group opened up to let me through, I started to open the door, Neil held it open as I got in. The hotel manger was stood a little way down the road gaping at me in a peculiar fashion, watching as Neil Hamilton closed the car door and waved me politely off before he turned back to the press.
I didn't go back to the hotel for about six months, I think they moved the campaign headquarters into the old Gas showroom, so it didn't matter that the bar phone never got fixed. The manager gave me a pretty queer look, he couldn't figure things out. The basement bar is still a regular haunt for Martin Bell. He appears to be content as an MP and has certainly put on weight. Ironic really because above the stairs down to the basement is a big caricature of Martin on the ceiling. Just about where there used to a sign that said 'duck or grouse', now hangs Martin's ample stomach!
A few months ago there was a survey or research done into the whole of the Labour parities election campaign comparing it to the Tories. Apparently they were both eclipsed by the 'Battle for Tatton' won by 'plucky' independent Martin Bell who caught the imagination of the public more than anything else in the whole election! It was the now
infamous 'Battle of Knutsford Common' that turned the tide.
One happy accident, well not an accident really, - I was just trying to help out. Just shows what sort of trouble you can cause if start acting like a boyscout! If I'd known the consequences I wouldn't have picked up the phone. Because of it all Tony Blair wins the election, the Tories were left
desolate, Neil Hamilton is bankrupted by Mr al-Fayed and it's all my fault! You'll keep this to yourself won't you?"
I just gaped at the fellow as he finished his story, the only thing I could think of saying was that, given the bad press the Tories got resulting from Neil Hamilton's press conference hijack our friend should have told Tony Blair about it and he'd have probably been made a life Peer!Back to Articles
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