The last time I visited the Hamiltons' home in Nether Alderley, Cheshire, was in April. Then, they were Britain's most wanted couple, the Bonnie and Clyde of brown envelopes. Catching sight of me lurking behind their hedge, Christine had suggested I might like to "Bugger orf". Three weeks later, Tatton voters told them to bugger orf. And that, most people thought, was that. It wasn't.
In the past two months, barely a day has passed without Neil or Christine appearing on television or radio, in the papers or glossies, at press conferences, book signings, university debates. They are back among us with one thing on their mind - revenge - and it's far from impossible that they'll get it. The time is right to re-enter the weird world of the Hamiltons, and I began to do so in London at the end of October.
THE LOO seat won't stay up. You press it home, but the damn thing keeps crashing back to its default setting - female posterior. Imagine those days when a grey-faced Neil returned with his wife to the sanctuary of this, their London flat - long days like the one on which sleaze allegations burst all over his ministerial career, or the one on which the Guardian headlined him "A liar and a cheat", or the one on which Sir Gordon Downey found "compelling evidence" that Neil had taken cash to ask questions in Parliament, or the one on which thugs carried out impromptu cosmetic surgery on his nose at Harvey Proctor's shirt shop. Bad days. Days when the least a man could ask would be to pee without hindrance. But the loo seat doesn't stay up. There's probably a knack, or maybe you just get used to the discomfort.
The kettle boiled. It had been a typical week for the Hamiltons. First, Christine was forced to find a new venue for the launch of her pet project, the Bumper Book of Battleaxes, after the Mothers' Union cancelled her booking, fearful the publicity might offend mums. Then Clive Anderson Talks Back told her they didn't want her on the show as "You no longer have any novelty value" - a puzzling judgement, since it implied that Christine, of all people, was now just like the rest of us. Perhaps the programme had had a tip-off from the Jack Docherty Show, on which, a few days earlier, Neil had run amok in the editing suite, demanding cuts to a "tense" interview with his wife. Fixing a smile and fighting a squint in her right eye, Christine ended the show with a whisper in her host's ear that looked very much like "You bastard".
Neil's own pet project - clearing his name - appeared also to have come unstuck. He'd been back in Parliament, surpassing the brilliant flourish of rhetoric that was his appeal before the Standards and Privileges Committee with the sublime Grand Guignol of the press conference at which he played tapes of conversations between Mohamed Al Fayed and Tiny Rowland. The former expleted about his own cock. While the tapes ran, Neil sat impassive, right thumb gouging a hole in his left palm, eyelids flickering in time to the Harrods beat. Christine stood, scanning the audience for non-believers. The point Neil was making to the entranced suits of Fleet Street was that he was the victim of a Fayed revenge campaign, but if the recordings were meant to help sway the committee against Sir Gordon Downey's damning report, they failed. Somehow, their purpose seemed to be as much to entertain as to enlighten. It was as if Neil and Christine were saying to the press: "Come on you shits, stop pretending you don't like us." As such, the tape-playing was a success. Most reporters laughed.
"Tea or coffee?" Christine wears a red cardigan over a red blouse, her trousers a shade of orange. The flowers on the bathroom wallpaper are the colour of fresh-spilled blood, the sofa and chairs in the living-room are red with white piping. On the wall is a metallic agglomeration that could be a landscape. Neil is on the phone, wearing a red V-neck pullover. You close your eyes and you see flashes of red. The Hamilton motto - WDTT (We Do Things Together) - doesn't apply to decor. This is Christine's domain; a top-floor eyrie - for some reason it's impossible not to use the word - in a Sixties block overlooking Battersea Park. "I found the place in the Seventies," she says, adding with glee, "And under Mrs Thatcher's Right to Buy its value went up from pounds 4,000 to pounds 40,000 more or less overnight." In excelsis Deo. Neil holds the phone, then bumbles over to quiz her about dinner arrangements. "He's quite hopeless," says Christine of the former Minister for Corporate Affairs. "Now, where were we before my secretary interrupted?" Neil looks troubled.
N: "Let me look at the diary to make sure what we're doing next week."
C: "Well darling, don't look at the diary. Look at my schedule. What day are you thinking of?"
N: "Tuesday, Wednesday, something like that."
C: "Like what? Morning, afternoon?"
N: "Well, which is which?"
C: "Here's Monday. That's when we're going to Cambridge. Tuesday we're doing Esther Rantzen in the afternoon, then dinner in the evening."
She expounds for my benefit: "That's about 'Stand By Your Man', which we've done several times. They do regurgitate these programmes. Lady Moon is on - one of the battleaxes in my book, of course, who didn't stand by her man, hur hur hur."
Lady Sarah Graham Moon is the sometime debutante who poured white paint over her adulterous husband Sir Peter's BMW, then took a pair of scissors to his suits. "All might have continued the way of so many British marriages," Christine explains in her book, "with the husband, or indeed the wife, having affairs on the side, but for the fact that Sir Peter exhibited the grossest bad taste by moving in with his latest girlfriend nearby."
The confusion continues.
N: "Somewhere in Chelsea or Victoria where we can lunch on Tuesday."
C: "Erm, who's paying, as it were?"
N: "Tante Claire's?"
C: "No, that's too smart. God, I don't know darling! I don't know what you're trying to fix! We'll fix that in due course if it's Tuesday."
Neil immediately echoes down the phone: "Can we fix that in due course?"
C: "I'm sorry. Were we in the middle of something when we were interrupted? ... Just write that down darling, then I'll ring whoever it was. That diary is nearly out of date."
The Hamiltons settle down. From its perch atop a bookcase, a stuffed baby crocodile keeps a glass eye on things.
And do you mind being seen as a battleaxe?
C: "No, not at all. 'Battleaxe' was one of the nicest things said about me. To be described by the Mirror as 'The wife from hell', from other quarters as 'The bossy liability' and 'The monstrous tyrant' ... Well."
She rolls her eyes heavenward.
There was a piece in the Observer, I begin, which quoted a psychoanalyst...
Christine begins a masculine "heh heh heh". She knows what's coming.
Is there a Freudian in the house?
C: "We just bowl along together, don't we. We're just a blissfully happy couple."
N: "We can't account for the deranged delusions of psychologists."
Surely you can't seriously describe yourself as blissfully happy?
C: "Of course I am."
She flutters her eyelashes.
C: "I'm one of the luckiest women in the world. He adores me, I adore him. We've got our health, we have some wonderful friends, a splendidly supportive family ... "
Family is a Hamilton key-word, though their use of it is slightly odd. They have no children, indeed wanted no children. They don't have pets, though they once offered the services of Sinbad, the goat which they keep in Cheshire, to Penny, a nanny goat whose owner wished her in the family way. Neil and Christine's stud fee was undisclosed. The phone rings. On to other matters.
In 1986 Neil and his friend the MP Gerald Howarth were awarded pounds 20,000 damages plus pounds 500,000 costs against the BBC in a libel case over a Panorama programme which identified the pair as supporters of extreme right-wing groups. At one point during the High Court trial, Neil had been required to perform a Hitler salute. The judge missed it the first time, so the then Member for Tatton obligingly raised his arm again.
N: "What happened in the BBC case was that student pranks were presented as though they were serious political events - preposterous!"
C: "Some journalists have no morals."
N: "When I turned my university newspaper at Aberystwyth from the Courier to the Imperial Times and Reactionary Herald that was presented as a serious setting out of my own views!"
Which it wasn't?
N: "Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
An eternity seems to pass, before:
"Of course it isn't."
You have quite a reputation for practical jokes.
C: "Thank God Neil's got a sense of humour! It's one of the things I love him for. I mean, there's a load of boring old farts in the media."
N: "I don't deny that. But ever since I was a schoolboy I wanted to be an MP, and my views are very serious, and even intellectual."
Baby crocodile seems to agree.
What about the time you backed the idea that people should be free to sell their body organs?
N: "The whole debate was driven by humbug. Christine and I had big rows about it. Christine thought the whole thing was disgusting. Well, there were people who couldn't get organ transplants. Alright, they were in the Third World and the argument was that they were being exploited. But if they sold one of their organs they would be paid what might for them be a huge sum of money which they might have needed for some medical emergency in their own family. It would have been easy for me to have kept quiet. I was the only MP who raised these concerns. There were no Brownie points for me. It would have been more sensible for me to do what Christine wanted and say nothing."
So you have put your foot in it?
N: "Of course I have."
Especially when you said that the IRA should shoot grannies.
N: "Yes, but that was all blown out of perspective. That was [Labour MP] Jeremy Corbyn."
C: "Corbyn was banging on about pensions."
N: "I'd say it was bad taste, but wasn't something that was premeditated. I just shouted out something jocularly across the floor of the House. His remarks were about old-age pensioners dying of cold, so I said: 'Why not get some of your IRA friends to put them out of their misery?' Well, alright, it's not in the best of taste, but to portray that as a serious political statement ... "
C: "It's pathetic."
N: " ... is mendacious, actually. I've made no secret of my political beliefs."
So you would still support people like the Contras, as you did in the Eighties?
N: "Yes, because that was of geopolitical interest. These aren't straight black and white issues - as in Chile, for example. Is there anybody now who says it wasn't a good thing for Allende to be overthrown and for Pinochet to take over? The result has been a transformation of Chile that has brought it back into the First World. But then one would have been portrayed as a monster for saying such a thing."
By the time Augusto Pinochet's 16-year rule came to an end in 1990, more than 3,100 Chileans had been murdered; he remains head of the country's armed forces. In 1987, the Mail on Sunday carried a story claiming that Neil and four other Tory MPs were supporters of the US-based, ultra-right- wing Western Goals Foundation. The foundation supported CIA-backed Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and organised a lecture tour by the leader of El Salvador's death squads. A British branch, the Western Goals Institute, was set up by a group of MPs belonging to the right-wing Monday Club.
Were you a member of Western Goals?
N: "My name was on their writing paper. I can't remember any details about it now. No doubt I was honorary officer of all manner of things - like the Libertarian Alliance, for example, which has published things like a call for the legalisation of hard drugs. I was very happy to support the Libertarian Alliance in principle because ... "
At this point, probings into the recesses of Neil's politics are suspended. A young man in tight black leather trousers has entered the room. He stands smiling broadly and saying nothing. For a moment, it looked as if some bizarre Hamiltonian rite were to begin. Sleaze incarnate?
C: "Don't have a fit. This is my leather friend."
Nervous laughter all round.
C: "This is Andrew. He's just a friend. Don't worry."
Christine and her friend disappear, giggling, into the kitchen. He produces a helmet, and may have a motorbike.
N: " ... I take a broadly libertarian view of the world, and that doesn't commit me to everything they publish. It's preposterous to treat people in this cartoon-book way."
There it is again. The Hamiltons' every earnest denial, their every bid for dignity, has been accompanied by high farce. While Neil is gravely discounting alleged links with pantomime fuhrers, his wife's leather friend is walking around in front of him; when shocked Neil and Christine hold hands and bid a bitter farewell to Tatton from the election-night podium, their backdrop is fellow candidate Miss Moneypenny, a lanky transvestite crowned by a birdcage; when Neil is required to perform a Hitler salute in court, he ends up having to do two of them; when one magazine does actually side with him, it turns out to be, of all things, Living Marxism.
The Hamiltons are truly blessed with a genetic propensity for the absurd. But if reason is up for grabs, so are the senses. The sleaze years have made their world a psychedelic one of shifting perceptions, lurid TV appearances and mind-distorting clothes all shades of red. It's a world in which right and wrong have ceased to be proven absolutes, but are matters for arbitration and conjecture.
In its final report on the Hamilton affair, the Standards and Privileges Committee conceded there was no "absolute" proof that Fayed paid Neil one penny, but also that there was no absolute proof he didn't. That ambiguity, the inability to establish guilt beyond all doubt, is exquisite. For unless a body is found to complement the smoking gun - or the Hamiltons manage to prove their innocence - they will remain in their Technicolor dream.
I ask Neil why, in his submission to Downey, he quoted a section from Mein Kampf. For the first time he grins broadly, then leaps from his chair to fetch a well-thumbed copy of the Downey Report from beside a glistening pile of Battleaxes.
N: "Here it is. Under the heading 'Fayed's Malicious And Vengeful Character'. Er ... "
Eventually, Neil gets to Mein Kampf.
" 'In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility ... the broad masses of a nation more readily fall victims to the big lie rather than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters, but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. The grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.' That's a keen psychological insight."
Neil adds hastily: "I got that from Alan Bullock's biography, rather than Mein Kampf itself."
So why do people believe that you are corrupt?
N: "People are gullible enough to believe that everything in print is true. It was wall-to-wall coverage ... the effect drills itself into people's subconscious. Papers have not been interested in my side of the story because it is detailed, complex, mundane and doesn't make for sexy reporting. I'm fighting a tank with a peashooter."
But you weren't only being attacked by the Guardian, were you?
N: "No, everybody else piled in."
And you were also being attacked from within your own party.
N: "Obviously, there were cross- currents. Only three people in the party urged me to resign - Edwina Currie, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn and Alan Clark - two serial philanderers and a ... "
C: "Soft-porn novelist!"
N: " ... Manic self-publicist."
So why didn't even papers inclined, at the time, to the Tories publish your version of events?
N: "Well, it's a mystery why these papers are not interested in the truth."
So who are you appealing to?
N: "If there isn't media pressure to get at the truth, what incentive is there to do anything but brush all this under the carpet? I made errors of judgment, but I'm not the only one, am I? The question is: 'Have I acted in a corrupt way?' The answer is definitely not ... Clearly, I'm the victim."
Victim. Somehow the word doesn't sit easily with a man in a woollen jumper comfortably askew in a large armchair, arms folded, legs draped over one side. And yet ... a short drive from the Hamiltons' Cheshire home a battle is raging which echoes their predicament. A few years ago, a man called John Ryan struck gold in plastic surgery. He bought a house in the pretty village of Great Budworth (where Martin Bell, the new MP for Tatton, lives). Ryan installed laurel trees, fountain, pond and Victorian- repro lamp-posts around his house, and villagers are enraged by what they see as the tasteless blotting of their landscape. The council wants the adornments removed. "While locals can have things like Victorian lamp- posts," Mr Ryan complains, "for some reason I am not allowed to. I've been victimised ... technically I am nouveau riche - but not in taste."
Matters of taste hang around the Hamiltons like the smell of Brut. Human organs, over-eating at the Ritz, shooting grannies, Mohamed Al Fayed's cock, Hitler impersonations, stuffed crocodiles, "moving in with your girlfriend near to your wife", Pinochet - to which list might be added the accusations of lying which have beset Neil over the past three years.
Learning that there is good lying and bad lying was, still is, part of the unofficial syllabus for any British schoolchild aspiring to rise in social class. It's a lesson Neil was probably aware of at Amman Valley Grammar in the early Sixties. Entering Parliament in 1983, Neil and the rest of that election's Thatcherite, lower-middle-class intake were dubbed "Terylene Tories" - not by the press or Labour, but by upper-class Conservatives, one of whose number, Eton-educated Alan Clark, went on to admit to the inquiry on illegal sales to Iraq that he had been "economical with the actualite". To many, lying is, less floridly, part of getting on in life - a useful social exercise.
Above the din of the latterday morality play that was the Tatton campaign, it was possible to make out the grunts of another contest, that of two Englands at each other's throats. It was the King's College, BBC man Martin Bell who would quote G K Chesterton - "Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England that never have spoken yet" - but it was the Hamiltons, holed-up in their too-large rectory, who looked like people of the England most of us recognise, the nation of repro lamp-posts, passive husbands, active wives - Margo and Jerry Leadbeatter from The Good Life adrift in the Nineties. If ever there was a Tom and Barbara Good, it was Mr Bell and his daughter.
And the Ritz?
C: "There was no question of our trying to conceal we'd been. When we got back we were full of it. Not so much the Ritz, but also the Duke of Windsor's house [also owned by Fayed], which was the purpose of going."
N: "It never occurred to us to register. There were dozens of MPs who enjoyed the hospitality of Conoco at the Gleneagles Hotel over the last 15 years, but a handful registered it. Is that moral turpitude? Of course it's not."
Hamilton pride received a large dent when Bruce Anderson, writing in the Spectator in October, observed that their week at the hotel was "more objectionable on aesthetic grounds than for any other reason; that a couple staying in the capital of gastronomy should choose to eat in the same restaurant every evening is unimpressive."
N: "This is a big bone of contention with the likes of Bruce Anderson and Dominic Lawson - 'How dreadfully lower-middle-class.' "
C: " 'How greedy!' "
N: " 'In the gastronomic capital of Europe, why didn't we eat out at other restaurants?' - Well, we'd already spent a week in France and were going to spend another week in France after we left the Ritz just touring around."
The Spectator's incidental snobbery has pierced the Hamilton flesh to a greater depth than the slight of mere sleaze. They are seriously angry.
C: "The point is, if you turn up at the Ritz and you think you're only going to be there for one or two nights, frankly you're mad not to eat there because it's a fabulous restaurant."
N: "It was a luxury to be there, just to have a hot bath, have dinner and go upstairs again. That isn't the sort of lifestyle we lead. It was a novelty, an extremely agreeable novelty. Anybody would think we spent our whole time living it up in five-star hotels around the world whilst I was an MP."
C: "Journalists do on expenses."
Just after the election you said you'd have to sell your house in Cheshire. Why haven't you?
N: "Yes, if we couldn't generate any income, but we have, basically through media work. I've been criticised for charging for interviews. In the entertainment business people gain for their novelty value, so why should we do anything for free?"
And when the novelty value fades?
"That's what these piles of books are." Neil gestures towards a dozen Battleaxes.
Would you write a reply to the Guardian reporters' Sleaze book?
N: "Well, I wonder how much interest there is in it. I'm aware of the necessity to make a new life, whatever the outcome. I have modest skills of communication and advocacy. In other circumstances those could be valuable. In current circumstances I come with a lot of baggage. Even though I consider that very unfair, I have to recognise the reality. It would be a ... "
Neil grasps for the right word.
" ... controversial decision for somebody to take me on."
As I leave, Christine is fluttering her eyelashes again. "So, where is all this cash we supposedly had from Fayed?" she asks. "No one's been able to find any trace of these alleged payments anywhere. I mean, is it under here ... " She waves in the direction of the red sofa, " ... or here?" pointing to an armchair. Beguiling as Christine Hamilton can be, it was tempting to look. Ever seen Rope?
Dame fortune is a strange old bat. If you're Jack Profumo, you withdraw gracefully into the shadows and devote your life to charity; if you're Neil Hamilton, you throw open your house to Vanessa Feltz. Not that Neil lied to the Commons. Indeed now, sitting in the living-room at the Old Rectory three weeks after we met at his London flat, his uneasy, defeated manner has given way to the confident poise of the righteous on a roll.
This is a little odd, since the intervening days brought final condemnation from the Standards and Privileges Committee - "Mr Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of its Members." He had also sought the help of his white-suited nemesis, Martin Bell, in his appeal before the committee. On the good side, enough of Christine's Battleaxes have sold to equip a longship or two, and Neil senses a change in attitude where it counts: the press.
N: "The past two weeks have been very positive. Actually, the committee voted not to endorse Downey's report ... the committee has not taken a view. If this were a Scottish court, I would have had a verdict of not proven. In an English court I would have been entitled to an acquittal."
But this will never come to court, will it?
N: "I've been doing my best to ensure I can take further legal action ... Things have improved significantly. The Downey Report in July was our nadir. Since then, I've caused people to have significant doubts about the process by which I've been condemned. Lots are now prepared to say: 'Well, there must be a reasonable doubt.' Many people would go further."
Christine pops her head around the door. The TV technicians continue glumly to roll up cables. They are the residue of a day spent entertaining Vanessa Feltz and her film crew.
C: "Sorry about all the mess," she shouts. "It's been bedlam all day."
N: "I feel that having been 10-nil behind, I've got back to a score draw. As much as anything else, it's a question of self-esteem. It's not pleasant to know that as you walk down a street someone will say: 'Look, there's that crook Hamilton.' "
Has anyone actually said that?
N: "Well no, I'm surmising. But I don't think it's too fanciful a thought."
How did it feel meeting Martin Bell?
N: "However resentful I may feel about the process by which he supplanted me, um, I have to get on with life. Christine feels strongly I was dispossessed by his coming forward as an independent, so-called. It may be fanciful, but the impression I get is that his opinion of me has gone up a lot and he's prepared to say the charges against me are unprovable."
What do you make of Labour being accused of sleaze in recent weeks over tobacco sponsorship?
Neil grins his Mein Kampf grin.
N: "I'm hugely enjoying it, the spectacle of nauseating hypocrisy being exposed. I hope they suffer as much as possible. I hope all these people [Labour politicians] are dealt with as severely as I have been, in the interests of fairness ... Until the charges [against me] are expunged from the record, there is unfinished business. I will be doing my best to ensure this matter is litigated and that the issues are tried in a court of law where the procedures are fair, and where witnesses giving evidence against me are going to be effectively cross-examined."
How would you fund a court case?
N: "I've had some approaches from former constituents of mine, but the sums involved are not great in comparison with the sums I'd need."
Christine bustles among the cables in the hallway. The film crew is taking some shots of a golliwog nestling near cardboard Maggie.
C: "Oooh, it's the politically incorrect golliwog! You're not allowed to buy them in shops! Neil, you must get on with your Marmite!"
Then straight to bed? Christine makes for the living-room.
C: "The film crew is following us to the Oxford Union tomorrow night. I'm speaking about the battleaxes, and on top of that, there's Marmite."
C: "Marmite are sponsoring a debate at the Union. The students asked whether Neil would get involved, so he's proposing the motion 'This House Thinks That Marmite Is A National Icon' ... with which one can only agree. I love it."
Do you enjoy this?
C: "Someone asked me the other day: 'What do I miss about being an MP's wife?' I said: 'Precious little', but was tempted to say 'Nothing'. I've done 70 interviews with my book in the past three weeks. It's better to be in the limbo we're in now than in the damning situation we were in in July. It's not worth it, being known as Mr and Mrs Sleaze."
Neil must finish his Marmite, but Christine is keen to tell me about a recent TV encounter with John Sweeney, the Observer journalist and Hamilton- baiter-in-chief, whose book Purple Homicide covers the Tatton campaign.
"I'd done my interview about my Battleaxes, then Sweeney came on - he's completely potty, as most people would agree. He did his bit about his silly little paperback - compared with my beautiful hardback. So I said: "Sweeney, mine's bigger than yours, and it's hard!"
We began with Neil reciting Oscar Wilde. Here's some more Wilde. In The Decay of Lying, Vivian tells Cyril that he is writing an article.
Cyril: What is the subject?
Vivian: I intend to call it The Decay of Lying: A Protest.
Cyril: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
Vivian: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain for proof of any kind!
! A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of 'The Printer's Devil' (Central Books, pounds 5.99), published later this month. For a copy, call 01273 720894.Reuse content