Interview: Who would want Mr Sleaze?

When Neil lost his seat at MP for Tatton, Christine lost her job as his parliamentary secretary. So instead of two incomes, they now have none. So far, so obvious. But why is it that the Hamiltons are still, as a couple, so utterly compelling? :Deborah Ro
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We are on the motorway, driving back to London from Cambridge, where Christine Hamilton has given a talk at the University Union to promote her book, The Bumper Book of British Battleaxes, "the ideal Christmas present for mothers-in-law and great-aunts," she enthuses shamelessly, "published by Robson Books for only pounds 14.95."*

The Hamiltons drive a Rover with 152,000 miles on the clock. I know this, because they say so.

"This car's done 152,000 miles,' says Neil, as if this proves conclusively that he has led a morally proper life during which he has never accepted naughty wads of cash. "Yes, and it's done us jolly well, hasn't it darling?" confirms Christine. They are always echoing and reinforcing each other like this. They are a great double act. I'm still trying to work out if they're a tragic or a comic double act. Perhaps they are tragi-comic. Maybe they are how PG Wodehouse would rewrite Macbeth.

Anyway, after some roadworks have been negotiated - "hang on everybody while we get through this tricky what-not," exclaims Christine - they shift the discussion to Christine's spiel at the Union.

Christine, sighingly: "They didn't laugh as much as I'd hoped."

Neil, comfortingly: "Well, they weren't a Bernard Manning-type audience."

Christine, perceptively: "That's because I'm not Bernard Manning, darling!"

Neil, encouragingly: "I thought the applause was very warm."

Christine, perking up: "They liked my Six Mile Bottom joke."

Neil: "It all went very well. I certainly enjoyed it."

Christine, craning her neck round to where I am cowering in the back: "Did you enjoy it?"

"It was great," I say, because I am a hopeless coward.

God, London another 58 miles, and I've told one big fib already. Look how easy it is to get sucked in! A lesson to us all, I think. But back to the Hamiltons, who are utterly compelling in their way.

Compelling? Yes. And fascinating, too. Last week, the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee effectively endorsed the Downey Report by concluding that while there was no absolute proof Neil took stuffed envelopes from Mohamed Al Fayed, the evidence was "compelling". Further, in accepting free stays at the Ritz and suchlike, his conduct fell "seriously and persistently below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of it's members". But still the Hamiltons won't have it.

"I hesitate to compare myself to the Bridgewater Four, but I have been given a life sentence of opprobrium for something I didn't do," he says. "My husband is innocent, and I will carry on fighting for his innocence," she says.

No, they are not about to go away. They have come to believe, absolutely and obsessively, that they have done nothing wrong, and are the wronged. They have built a big fantasy house based on this belief, with eaves and guttering and a fitted kitchen and everything, and can't move out because if they did, where would they go? It's a folie a deux extraordinaire, if you'll excuse my French. If the Hamiltons are examples of anything, they are examples of the extent the mind will go to when vanity and conceit need protecting from horrible truths. Have you ever thought of counselling? I ask Christine, at one point. "Counselling? Tosh!" she replies.

People always imagine that Christine wears the trousers in the relationship. Certainly, she is much noisier and bossier. "Young man, there's a chair up here," she barks to a latecomer at the talk. (I imagine she is quite scary in bed. "No, not there. There. You silly man.") And, of course, she was brilliantly noisy and bossy when she had that set-to with Martin Bell on Knutsford Heath during the run-up to the election. She says she didn't intend to do what she did. "But I just saw this sanctimonious little man standing there in his white suit and I flipped." Yes, she does appear to rule Neil. "Neil, we must go home now. You have to be up by 8am to do Sky. Have just the one drink."

But still, they need each other so hugely, and are so chillingly devoted, that it ultimately makes them equal. They are one leg each of a pair of trousers, if you can bear to think of it like that. They had to go on to Have I Got News For You as effectively one person, because otherwise it would have been like having an amputee sitting there. What one lacks, the other makes up for. She cooks. He vacuums. She seems quite lusty and passionate. He seems quite a cold fish, bloodless and marrowless. Her big face trembles with every emotion. His smaller one is grey, with thin lips. Of course, one cannot blame him for this, but even so.

Certainly, he considers himself the intellectually superior one. But, then, I think he considers himself intellectually superior to most. He says to me at one point, after something I have said: "If you don't mind me saying, that is a very superficial analysis." This is preposterous because, as everyone knows, I'm a very deep thinker whenever I'm not too busy reading Hello! He later says he became an MP because "I wanted to rule the world." I think he may be suffering from a touch of the Nietszchean Supermanias.

We meet at the Cambridge Union. Christine is wearing a red skirt teamed with a loudly patriotic red, white and blue striped jacket. Both are "ages old", she stresses, as if this proves once and for all that she has led a blameless life untainted by naughty Harrods gift vouchers. "In fact, I haven't been into a shop for anything other than food or a pair of tights since 1 May. We can't afford non-essentials any more. Except wine, but then I consider that essential."

They both lost their jobs when Neil lost his seat because she had always been his parliamentary secretary. They have gone, they moan, from having two incomes to having none.

No, Neil cannot go back to practising as a barrister. "Who would want Mr Sleaze?" he asks. Yes, they still have the flat in London, and their converted rectory surrounded by four acres in Nether Alderley, Cheshire. But still, they are poor, they say.

Christine: "We have had to make many economies."

Neil: "The first thing we did was to cancel the newspapers."

Christine: "You just do not need Country Life every week."

Neil: "And we are not noticeably less informed."

Christine: "Someone sent us some vouchers for a free copy of The Times every Tuesday, so we use those."

The Cambridge students do receive her warmly. And they do appear to like her Six Mile Bottom joke. Apparently, when Baroness Trumpington was first offered a peerage she was asked if she would like to take the name of the village she lived in. She replied: "You don't think I'm going to call myself `Lady Six Mile Bottom', do you?" The undergraduates seem most amused. I wonder who gets to go to Cambridge these days. But then Neil, who has come along to "man the stall", manages to flog only two of the books. So perhaps the students were just being polite.

The book, which includes chapters on Baroness Trumpington, Margaret Thatcher, Joan Collins and Nicola Horlick, is a bit of a shoddy cuttings job. Predictably, it has not been enthusiastically reviewed. Predictably, the Hamiltons just do not get it. When you live in the sort of house they live in, it's those outside who are barking.

"The Sunday Telegraph reviewed it as if it was meant to be a serious book," complains Christine, outraged.

"Christine does not think she is going to get the Nobel Prize for literature," adds Neil, helpfully.

"Some people just do not have a sense of humour," she concludes decisively.

Neil and Christine, both now approaching 50, have been married for 14 years, but their story goes back much farther than that, to when they were 19 and met though the Confederation of Conservative Students. Christine, the daughter of a GP was, back then, an undergraduate at York studying sociology while Neil was at Aberystwyth studying economics. She first spied Neil, she says, playing the piano under Landseer's The Swannery Invaded by Sea Eagles. This painting, I now know, shows eagles biting the heads off swans. This would be a great metaphor for something if only I could think of what. (I am paid good amounts of cash for my questions, but they're going to have to up it a bit if they want metaphors.)

They courted for two years, during which time Neil sent Christine many a "beautiful" love letter. "I still have them. I keep them in a little leather box I lock with a gold key." But after she graduated, she dumped him. Hoping to become a politician herself, she took a job as secretary to Sir Gerald Nabarro MP. She moved to London, and that was that. "I was 21 and arrived at the House of Commons and had MPs asking me out and it was all so exciting, while Aberystwyth was a day's journey away." She gave Neil the elbow at the Dixieland Palace, Morecambe, where they had gone to hear Sir Edward Heath speak at some student do. Yes, Neil was very upset, she says. "He was chairman of his Conservative association and needed a girl on his arm."

They exchanged annual Christmas cards but did not meet again until 1976, when Neil called her up and arranged to take her out to lunch at The Gay Hussar. Unbeknown to her, he had not met anyone else in the interim and was rather hoping this lunch would revive matters. "Poor Neil. He was a research student, on a pittance. The lunch cost him six months' money." "Three months, actually, darling," interjects Neil. "Well, whatever. But I was heavily involved with someone else so, afterwards, I just gave him a peck on the cheek and left." The following year, she received a Christmas card from him with a small note inside. The note said he was now studying for the Bar and was staying with an aunt; why didn't she give him a call? Having finished with the previous bloke, she did give him a call.

"He came to my flat on the evening of 17 February, 1978 and never went home again." As she remembers the date so clearly, was it the first time they had sex? "Gracious no," she exclaims. "We had met as students." Lusty, as I said. But never any children. Neither ever wanted any.

They married in Cornwall in 1983, on the Saturday before the general election. There was no honeymoon as such, just a night in the Exeter Motor Lodge Hotel on the way back to Cheshire. Christine did not mind. By now, she had given up her own ambition, after perhaps deciding Neil was the better bet. She was always his parliamentary secretary. In effect, they were both the MP for Tatton. She is right when she says: "If someone accuses Neil of being a liar, then they are accusing me of being a liar. If someone accuses Neil of being a cheat, then they are accusing me of being a cheat. I knew everything he got up to." A folie a deux, without doubt.

But what now for the Hamiltons? There are no more parliamentary appeals left for them to pursue. They can not reinstigate libel proceedings because they don't have the money. Any plans to live abroad? I ask hopefully. "No, we are not going to be fleeing the country," replies Neil. Probably, they will spend the rest of their lives writing mad letters in green ink. Together. In that house.

*As Mrs Hamilton did such a good job flogging her own book, this little bit of space at the end, usually reserved for the plug, will instead be given over to publicising `Macbeth' by PG Wodehouse, to be published shortly by Dead Men Rewriting Other Dead Men's Classics Inc. It will include the famous lines: `Is this a dagger I see before me, Aunt Agatha?' `No, Freddie Fitch-Fitch, it's a voucher for a free stay at the Ritz, but I think you'll find it'll do the job just as deucedly well.'

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