Martin Bell was elected as an independent MP for Tatton in 1997
The spectre of 'the man in the white suit' must have been haunting Hazel Blears. But no longer. As Martin Bell confirms he won't stand against the Salford MP, we ask who will, as the countdown to Hazel's Hallowe'en deadline begins.
Anti-corruption champion Martin Bell was invited to speak at a meeting of the 'Hazel Must Go!' campaign in Eccles (16 September 2009) in response to widespread anger over the Salford MP's expenses scandal.
At the meeting, campaigners delivered Hazel Blears a stark ultimatum: 'Agree to step down by October 31st, or we will stand a candidate against you at next year's general election.'
Why the Hallowe'en deadline is unclear. Although, ironically, Labour party activists have branded the campaign a 'witch-hunt' of a working class woman who had reached the top table in politics.
HAZEL BLEARS' EXPENSES ROW
elected Salford MP in 1997
resigned as Communities Secretary over the MPs expenses scandal in May 2009
claimed for three different properties in a single year
spent £5,000 of taxpayers' money on furniture in three months
repaid £13,000 in unpaid capital gains tax
What is clear is that the former BBC war correspondent will not be going into battle in Salford.
Wearing his trademark white suit, Martin Bell told the meeting that, while he cared deeply about integrity in public life, he was not the right person to contest the seat.
Speaking later on BBC Radio Manchester, he said: "I believe where you have a MP who has a lot of explaining to do, he or she is much better opposed as an independent by someone of the local hero model," he said.
Surely, a huge relief indeed for Hazel Blears and her supporters. But if not the man in the white suit, then who?
"It's got to be someone Salfordian, someone with a history of work in the community, someone well-known," said Mr Bell.
Adding: "There are three tests to be met: you've got to have a good, local candidate, you've got to have a vulnerable incumbent, and you've got to have a good cause.
"And I think the other two are certainly met in this case."
Mr Bell, who successfully unseated Neil Hamilton in 1997 overturning a huge Tory majority with his anti-corruption campaign, warned that it would not be easy to depose a former cabinet minister in a safe Labour seat.
"I think it's going to be a real uphill struggle," he said. "It's going to take a minor political miracle but you never know. There's no doubt people are angry.
"But I think it's an incredibly difficult job," added Mr Bell. "I think it's just within the limits of the possible, but I'm not entirely sure the campaigners have fully grasped how difficult it is."
Ms Blears, MP for Salford since 1997, has already successfully beaten a vote of no confidence from her local Labour Party, after she was embroiled in the MPs expenses scandal in the summer.
If she decides to fight on, the challenge her opponents will face is this: can the anti-Blears vote unite behind a single candidate? Or will it be split between opposition on the far left and far right?
Arif Ansari, the BBC's Political Editor in the North West said there was certainly no indication that Ms Blears was about to make some pre-Hallowe'en announcement.
"The ultimatum is a sort of political trick-or-treat, I suppose," he said. 'Either go or we're going to play this trick on you.' And I suspect she's just going to slam the door in their face, actually.
"Certainly, the impression I get from local party members is that there's no way she going to step down. Although, I think if Martin Bell had stood against her she'd have been in serious trouble."