Welcome to this tragi-comedy of self-deception

IF YOU were to write an epic novel set inside the Conservative Party over the past 20 years, Neil Hamilton would be your central character.

In the Eighties when greed was good and the Tories consistently won elections and law suits, Hamilton put out the writs and dined at the Ritz. He became a minister, and in what must have been a particularly thin year, was named "Parliamentary Wit of 1990". Ten years on he is a ruined man, his party is in tatters but bizarrely, neither of them really believe that they have done anything at all wrong.

The level of self-deception is almost heroic. Christine Hamilton is the upper-middle class equivalent of those angry mums who storm into the head teacher's office shouting, "My Darren never done nothing! He always gets picked on by you teachers for burning down school buildings just 'cos he happened to have some firelighters and a box of matches in his pocket." Against all the evidence Christine still believes that her husband is being picked on. Never mind that Parliament found him guilty, never mind a jury found him corrupt, never mind that 60 per cent of voters in a safe Conservative seat voted for the anti-sleaze candidate. She's his little boy and they're all ganging up on him again.

There is an enormous arrogance that comes with this refusal to admit the error of your ways. When you consider how great Neil Hamilton's fall has been, only then do you get a sense of the level of pride that came before it. Unlike John Profumo who accepted his fate and threw his life into charitable works, today's Tories are proven to be dishonest and then just carry on lying about their innocence. The bizarre thing is that when Hamilton and Archer and Aitken look indignant and victimised they really seem to believe it. They've heard their own lies so often that they have finally become convinced by them. The look of outrage and injustice on the Hamiltons' faces outside the High Court reminded me of the incredulous expression of Mr and Mrs Ceausescu when they were executed in Romania 10 years ago this week. They really can't see what they have done wrong.

Neil Hamilton has now achieved the almost impossible task of making Mohamed Al Fayed look like the good guy. Of course, as a Fulham supporter, my problem with Al Fayed is that he is not nearly corrupt enough. All season I have been appalled by our club chairman's consistent failure to bribe referees. Week in, week out, outrageously fair decisions are made in favour of the opposing teams. Not one visiting goalie has been sent off for handball. Not one penalty has been awarded for blocking a Fulham shot on goal. But with the politicians Al Fayed has been more generous. It seems strange that a businessman can stand up in court insisting that he has indeed bribed politicians and nobody is concerned whether or not this might constitute an offence.

Somebody else will have to take on Al Fayed, and this duty must now fall to the Royal Family. This will be the first great libel trial of the next century. The Duke of Edinburgh suing the Harrods boss over his loony allegations made about a plot to murder Diana. I'm sure his Royal Highness must know some rich people who could help fund his legal bill. Prince Philip will sit in Court 13, his plucky and ever-loyal wife Elizabeth at his side, biting back her tears and clutching her husband's arm as she recalls how hurtful the allegations against him have been. Perhaps Her Majesty may have to go into the witness box herself.

"Did you have champagne and caviar for breakfast that morning?"

"I expect so, that's what we have most days.''

Of course whatever the outcome of that trial, the Hamiltons will interpret it as further proof of their innocence. When you have become as detached from reality as they are, every piece of evidence serves to convince you further of the fantasy into which you have disappeared.

And for Neil and Christine Hamilton's self-deception, read the collective psyche of today's Tory party. They really believe that schools are attempting to actively promote homosexuality. They really believe that the Labour Party is full of IRA supporters and that Tony Blair is determined to surrender control of this country to the Reichstag. In the Eighties their values were the common currency, but now their homophobia and their petty jingoism are the irrelevant rantings of a by-gone age. Now the Conservatives are like a lunatic fringe party. Soon we can expect to see them outside Woolworth's next to the Socialist Workers on a Saturday afternoon shouting "Daily Telegraph! Get your Daily Telegraph! Britain out of Europe! Start the hospital closures."

There has been a seismic shift away from the extremism, greed and dishonesty of the Eighties and the displaced victims of that change, such as Aitken and Archer, are now scattered all around. This week in the epic story of the decline of a once-powerful political party, the last of its great symbolic villains finally became a ruined man when a jury gave their verdict on Neil Hamilton. But that was only 12 people who are on the electoral role. Just wait until the other 40 million give their verdict in 18 months' time. That will be the final scene of this momentous tragi-comic novel.

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