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Saturday, 2 December, 2000, 17:35 GMT
Bell eyes up Tory seat
Martin Bell
Making is mind up: Will Martin Bell make the challenge?
Independent MP Martin Bell says he is considering fighting a traditionally safe Conservative seat in the general election.

The former BBC TV war correspondent is said to have been approached by a number of Tories, who feared an evangelical church had infiltrated their local association.

Mr Bell said he had not yet decided whether to contest Brentwood & Ongar in Essex, but would announce his decision soon.

I am considering my options

Martin Bell MP
He said on Friday: "I am considering my options. I have had invitations from individual Conservatives in Brentwood & Ongar and many letters from all political persuasions in the constituency."

His comments came after BBC2's Newsnight said that "friends" of his had indicated he would announce his plans to stand next Friday.

'Entryism' claims denied

Brentwood & Ongar came under investigation by Conservative Central Office, after claims that the locally-based Peniel Pentecostal Church had conducted a campaign of "entryism" in order to seize control of its Conservative Association.

That investigation found no proof of malpractice.

Eric Pickles MP has dismissed suggestions that the association was unduly dominated by the church, which has made claims of miraculous healing at its services.

He said on Friday: "Conservative Central Office gave us a clean bill of health."

Tougher challenge

Mr Pickles also denied there was anything untoward in the fact that he shared a press agent, Keith Brown, with the Peniel Church.

He said: "Keith Brown has been my press agent for nine years and he was my predecessor's press agent. I'm not going to sack someone for their religious beliefs."

With a Tory majority of 9,690 in 1997, Brentwood & Ongar is the party's 42nd safest seat.

Many believe it would prove a much tougher challenge to Mr Bell than Tatton, in Cheshire, which he took from disgraced Tory Neil Hamilton.

Mr Bell promised during the Tatton campaign that he would stand down from the seat after one term, but has recently expressed regret at the thought of leaving Parliament so soon.

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