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Carman forces Hamilton to retreat on damages

NEIL HAMILTON dropped one of his main claims for damages against Mohamed Al Fayed yesterday after just 22 minutes of cross-examination by George Carman QC.

The High Court had long been awaiting the questioning of the former MP for Tatton, Cheshire, by the counsel for the owner of Harrods, the formidable Mr Carman. It came late in the day, but those present were taken aback by the speed with which the barrister closed in. Even evoking the name of Peter Mandelson did not help Mr Hamilton.

The former Tory minister had told the jury that he was a "very popular" member of John Major's government, his political career was destined for the top and he would probably have been a member of William Hague's shadow cabinet, if not for Mr Fayed's "lies" about cash for questions.

Beginning his cross-examination, Mr Carman described the strong criticism of Mr Hamilton by a House of Commons select committee, which found that he had "fallen seriously and constantly below the standard expected of an MP".

Mr Carman then asked Mr Hamilton: "Are you seriously saying to the jury, `Award me damages for the loss of my career prospects, which include the possibility that I'd be serving in the shadow cabinet or as a front-bench spokesman now,' in the light of the fact that the select committee found in 1997 that if you were a serving member you'd have deserved a substantial period of suspension?"

Mr Hamilton responded: "Well, Mr Mandelson is back in the Cabinet ... "

Mr Carman interjected: "When was Mr Mandelson criticised by a select committee, or threatened with suspension from the House?"

After a slight hesitation, Mr Hamilton said: "I am happy to exclude from any damages that I would be a front-bench spokesman."

Mr Carman pounced: "Are you withdrawing that?"

Mr Hamilton replied: "Yes, I am quite happy to abandon that specific point."

Mr Hamilton, 50, was giving evidence on the 15th day of his libel action against Mr Fayed over allegations that he accepted cash, gifts and free holidays, including one at the Paris Ritz hotel, for asking questions favourable to the Harrods owner in the Commons.

Mr Fayed turned up in the afternoon to hear his lawyer grill Mr Hamilton. Both the public gallery and the court were full, with MPs and lawyers from other cases crowding in.

Mr Carman and Mr Hamilton clashed at the very start of the cross-examination. The politician accused the barrister of telling the jury "half-truths" about him in his opening statements. Mr Carman recounted the findings of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee after the Downey report on the cash-for-questions allegations - that Mr Hamilton's "conduct bordered on indifference and contempt towards the rules of the House and the disclosure of interests". Mr Carman promised Mr Hamilton that he would be examining all aspects of the former MP's behaviour, including his "lack of candour" in dealing with the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Michael Heseltine, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and the Tory Chief Whip, Richard Ryder.

Earlier Mr Hamilton described how he had resigned from his post of Minister for Corporate Affairs after being summoned to "a hanging committee" attended by Mr Heseltine, Mr Ryder and Sir Robin. They questioned him about the allegations of corruption levelled against him in newspaper articles. Mr Hamilton told the court: "The decision had obviously been taken, even before I arrived at the meeting, that my position was untenable. This was not because they believed the allegations against me but because the accumulating pressure of the developing story made it too much of an distraction both for myself as a minister and the government as a whole."

Mr Hamilton was asked by his counsel, Desmond Browne QC, about commission payments Mr Hamilton received for introducing commercial companies to the political lobbyist Ian Greer.

After one such introduction, of the National Nuclear Corporation, Mr Hamilton received pounds 4,000 in commission from Mr Greer. After another introduction, of the company US Tobacco, Mr Hamilton was paid pounds 6,000 in commission by the lobbyist.

Mr Hamilton told the court that he regarded the commission he took for introducing NNC as a "very welcome windfall" that he "didn't particularly desire to hand over half of" to the Inland Revenue.

He asked Mr Greer to help him reduce the tax liability by "defraying the bill, which I might run up over the course of the next few months" instead of giving him the whole amount at once.

Mr Hamilton bought a painting and goods from a department store. Those items and air fares to the United States for him and his wife, Christine, cost pounds 1,594 and were paid for by Mr Greer, leaving a balance of pounds 746 from the pounds 4,000 commission, which was eventually paid to him by cheque.

Mr Hamilton said he did not enter his September 1987 stay at the Paris Ritz on the register of members' interests because it did not seem to him to be a registerable interest according to the rules as they stood: "No one else, to my knowledge, had registered hospitality of that kind, and there had been several invitees who had gone to Paris, and were flown out, and didn't register. Although members were not any less punctilious about their duties, they approached these questions in a less censorious and searching way."

The case continues.