When marriage turns into a very public humiliation

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Like Christine Hamilton before her, Vanessa Davis (Mrs Oflot) is today facing up to ordeal by media, a plunge in income and the rapid exit of friends and status, all because her husband went and lost his big job. Ros Wynne-Jones on

the worst day in a wife's life.

It began with an episode of Panorama. It ended yesterday, after nearly two years of the media inquiring as to whether his position was really tenable, as a man in high public office cleared his desk. As his world collapsed, his wife was out on the doorstep of the family home raining verbal blows on those who would doubt her "honourable, upright and decent" husband's integrity. "There's been some awful things said and written about my husband, and it's obviously upsetting for him and me," she said incredulously. "But I know he did absolutely nothing wrong."

In yesterday's drama, the central character was Peter Davis, the UK lottery regulator sacked after a libel jury upheld Richard Branson's claim that the chairman of GTech, a member of the Camelot consortium, had tried to bribe him to drop his own bid to run the lottery. But there was a sense of deja vu, as his wife Vanessa made a solid defence from behind the scenes, a Christine Hamilton in the making. We have been here before, in Tatton last spring, when every day the press pack grew exponentially with the daffodils outside the Hamilton's Nether Alderley mansion. And last night, Mrs Hamilton, who has become as practised as Hillary Clinton in the art of standing by her man, had a few words of advice for Mrs Vanessa Davis on how to weather a very public humiliation.

"At first it seems almost as if the world is ending," she said yesterday, from Nether Alderley. "The witch-hunt climate grows and you are besieged by the press. You pass people in the street and you know what they've read in the papers and you expect them to think the worst of you." Mrs Hamilton admitted "rather enjoying" the recent Robin Cook saga - "I wouldn't be human if I hadn't" - but said that she couldn't help feeling some sympathy for his predicament.

"The most important thing for Mrs Davis to do is to keep strong for her husband," she says. "The last thing he needs at this stage is his wife getting hysterical in the street. You have to be all smiles. It might not seem like it, but the rat pack will quite quickly move on to someone else."

During the cash-for-questions saga, Mrs Hamilton turned out to be an important link between several of the key players, having been a former secretary to Sir Michael Grylls, who was implicated along with her husband, Neil. So too, a chance meeting in 1975 between Mrs Davis and another woman, Cordelia Menges, began a chain of events that has contributed to Mr Davis's resignation.

Twenty two years ago, Mrs Davis was attending ante-natal classes, following the birth of her son, Alexander, now an Oxford undergraduate, when she met Mrs Menges, the wife of a New York financier. The women got along well and eventually became friends as mothers with children the same age. In 1994, the Davis's visited the Menges at their Long Island home during a trip in which Mr Davis studied the US lottery. The problem was that Mr Menges was now a non-executive director of a company called GTech.

While in the States, Mr Davis made three flights aboard a Cessna Citation III executive jet, four journeys in a helicopter and was chauffeur-driven in a limousine. All these free rides were in GTech vehicles. His decision not to decline GTech hospitality has since been called "a serious error of judgement" by the all-party Commons public accounts committee.

"With hindsight I'm sure Mr Davis would never have accepted those things from GTech," says Mrs Hamilton. "With hindsight, Neil and I would never have gone to the Ritz [owned by Mohammed al Fayed, for whom Mr Hamilton was subsequently accused of asking questions in the House of Commons]." She admits that with such a cloud hanging over her husband's departure as MP for Tatton it is hard for either Hamilton to find work. "Neil has all sorts of talents, as a barrister, an economist, and so forth, but companies don't want to be associated with him," she says. "I expect Mr Davis will find that people want his talents and skills but not his name. They'll soon find out who their friends are."

Mr Davis, a Wimbledon and Arsenal supporter once labelled "Mr Boring" by the tabloids because of his decree that Mrs Davis and their two sons must not buy lottery tickets so that the head of the household was beyond reproach, now finds himself with the more interesting but also more damaging tag "controversial". Asked once how he would have spent a jackpot lottery, he replied that he would buy fishing rights in Ireland and Scotland and be "frightfully boring" by investing the rest. Mrs Davis could have had a "nice birthday present" he added. Neighbours describe the family as "suburban, ordinary".

This year, her birthday present will no doubt be inexpensive as the Davis's begin to cut back following the loss of Mr Davis's pounds 80,000 Oflot salary. Accepting the Oflot job had already meant a pay cut as Mr Davis, who lives in a pounds 1m mansion, complete with tennis court in Wimbledon, had been earning a far higher salary in the private sector. Although he still holds positions at Equitable Life and Provident Friendly which will bring in about pounds 50,000 per year, the loss of the pounds 80,000 will be sorely missed.

Christine Hamilton is philosophical about her husband's - and her own - loss of status following 1 May. "In the end, what's happened to us is nothing compared with some of our friends in the same period," she says. "We haven't faced cancer or family traumas or divorce. In a way we're lucky." She adds mischievously: "Anyway, at least Martin Bell knows what it's like to be accused of impropriety now."

All that may seem of little comfort to the Davis's, however, as they watch the press pack outside and contemplate once more being on the front pages of tomorrow's media. Mrs Davis, who has since fallen out with her friend Mrs Menges, will undoubtedly be wishing she'd chosen a different ante-natal class 22 years ago.

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