Martin Bell: ‘The sleaze now is worse than when I ran for MP’

Independent candidate who toppled disgraced Conservative in 1997 urges non-Tory voters to think tactically in byelections

Michael Savage 

The former anti-sleaze MP Martin Bell has urged voters to turn this week’s byelections into a referendum on the “loss of trust in public life”, as he warned that Boris Johnson’s conduct had slipped well below those of the government he successfully stood against in the 1990s.

Bell ran as an anti-sleaze unity candidate in the Cheshire constituency of Tatton in 1997, in the wake of a series of scandals that helped sink John Major’s government. However, he said that the attempts by Johnson to change rules for political ends meant things were “worse now”.

In an interview with the Observer, he called on Labour voters to vote tactically to unseat the Tories in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems are attempting to overturn a huge 24,000 majority. He said it was similar to the majority he had had to overturn in Tatton to defeat disgraced Conservative Neil Hamilton.

“Obviously, local issues are going to be important,” he said. “But just the way that events have fallen, it is in a sense a sort of referendum on the present practice of politics and the loss of trust in public life. I really think we’re in a worse place than we were in 1997, simply because the government keeps trying to change the rules to its advantage. I think the people in both Wakefield and Tiverton have a wonderful opportunity to send a message that ‘up with this we will not put’.”

He said that the attempt last year to change Commons rules to help Owen Paterson avoid censure after a lobbying scandal, combined with the resignation of Johnson’s second ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, meant voters should send the prime minister a message about his government’s conduct. “Honestly, as bad as things were in the 1990s – in the first age of sleaze, if I may put it like that – I think they’re worse now. I was so much struck by the Owen Paterson affair last November and the attempt by the government to change the rules. The idea that you replace the committee on standards with one of your own choosing struck me as gerrymandering.

“Every week it gets worse. The government redraws the code of conduct, it puts [Geidt] in an impossible position. The Lib Dems have a much harder task in Tiverton than Labour does in Wakefield, but I know from experience that it is doable.”

Bell said that those loyal to Labour who wanted to vote for the party in Tiverton were able to do so. Unlike in his victory in 1997, Labour has not stood aside. However, he said that anyone who helped unseat the Conservatives would relish being on the “winning side”.

“Individual enthusiasts, if they’re Labour in Tiverton or a Lib Dem voter in Wakefield, they are not disenfranchised, they still have a candidate to vote for. But I think there’s a strong case for them to vote tactically. If the Tories managed to hold on to Tiverton, I think they’ll see it as a great success. But I cannot remember a byelection which is likely to have a greater national impact than these two because of the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves.

“If you’re going to be made really unhappy by not voting for your Labour candidate, you’ve got someone to vote for. But think of the impact that you can make by being, for once, on the winning side. Even the minority of Labour supporters in Tatton who really did not like the idea being thrust upon them of an outsider coming in were absolutely delighted to see the back of Neil Hamilton. I think the voters have a huge opportunity to just send a very strong message to Downing Street on Thursday.”