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Monday, March 8, 1999 Published at 12:30 GMT

UK Politics

Tatton contenders unveiled

Neil Hamilton with his wife on the night he lost his Tatton seat

Tatton Conservatives have unveiled the shortlist from which they will select their parliamentary candidate for the next election.

The last Tory MP for Tatton, ex-minister Neil Hamilton, put the constituency in the spotlight as a result of his central role in the "cash for questions" scandal.

This time round the local party has deliberately opted for low-profile contenders.

Until the last election, Tatton had been one of the Tories' safest seats.

But in 1997 Mr Hamilton was beaten by independent candidate Martin Bell, who ran on an anti-sleaze platform.

Mr Bell overturned a 22,000 Tory majority, but promised he would stand down after serving a single term.

Revealing the Tory shortlist, Mark Stocks, chairman of the local Conservative Association, said he now regarded Tatton as a marginal constituency.

[ image: Hamilton was at the centre of the cash-for-questions scandal that hit John Major's government]
Hamilton was at the centre of the cash-for-questions scandal that hit John Major's government
He added: "We were not looking for potential Cabinet material but someone who will work hard in the constituency and convince the electorate that the errors made last time have been corrected."

The four shortlisted contenders, none of whom are household names, will appear before a full meeting of the constituency association on 18 March for the final selection.

The candidates are:

  • Chris Grayling, a former BBC journalist and Warrington South candidate in the 1997 election.
  • George Osborne, shadow cabinet aide and former adviser to the major government.
  • Peter Fleet, district manager for Ford in Scotland.
  • Richard Ashworth, chairman of Hastings and Rye Conservative Association and a former parliamentary candidate.

As the shortlist was being announced, Mr Hamilton was at the Court of Appeal attempting to win the go-ahead for libel proceedings against Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed.

Mr al-Fayed accused Mr Hamilton of, among other things, accepting cash in brown envelopes from him in exchange for tabling parliamentary questions.

Bell's son-in-law may fight seat

Meanwhile Mr Bell, in an interview with BBC News Online, confirmed speculation that his son-in-law wished to fight the seat for Labour. Peter Bracken met Mr Bell during the 1997 election campaign, and married his daughter a year later.

[ image: Martin Bell overturned a 22,000 Tory majority to win the seat in 1997]
Martin Bell overturned a 22,000 Tory majority to win the seat in 1997
But the MP insisted that despite the family connection he would not endorse Mr Bracken should he become a candidate.

"He's certainly interested. Of course, he's a Labour man. He came up during the campaign from Labour headquarters to help in the last week," said Mr Bell. "I think he would like a parliamentary career.

"But they do know that if he is selected as the Labour candidate, they don't get father-in-law's endorsement.

"Because, part of being independent, I said not only will I not stand, but I will not endorse a candidate in the next election."

Blair 'out of touch'

In his interview, the Tatton MP also criticised the New Labour government for being out of touch and for its treatment of Parliament.

"I think there's an over-exaggerated control. Their own backbenchers seldom get out of line. I don't mean just not asking the awkward question, but only asking planted questions.... It's not a government being held genuinely to account.

"I think there's a certain, I don't know if arrogance is too strong a word, an out-of-touchness, which is odd for the 'people's party'."

Mr Bell also unfavourably compared the current parliamentary intake with those of previous elections, saying the present House of Commons lacked the "great minds" that sat in it in recent decades.

"I think this is what this Parliament lacks, those kinds of rounded individuals who had great minds."

Citing the former home secretary and chancellor Roy (now Lord) Jenkins as an example, Mr Bell asked: "Who of this generation would fit that category? They're more like social engineers, aren't they? Or social workers".

Click here to read BBC News Online's interview with Martin Bell.

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