Fayed jury asked: Anyone here support Fulham?

ARE YOU, or have you ever been, a supporter of Fulham Football Club? That was the question faced by a panel from which the jury for the Neil Hamilton v Mohamed Al Fayed libel case was chosen.

When none of the 40 Londoners admitted to being a fan of the club owned by Mr Fayed, Mr Justice Morland raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and asked: "What, not one of you?" to loud laughter.

It was the only moment of levity on the opening day of the case, and the jury of six men and six women was sent away immediately afterwards. In another twist in this long and dramatic tale, the court then went into prolonged legal arguments, the details of which cannot be revealed at this stage of the proceedings under court rules.

George Carman QC, appearing for the multi-millionaire owner of Harrods, clashed repeatedly with Desmond Browne QC, appearing for the former MP for Tatton, in front of a rapt and full Court 13 of the High Court.

The case had been billed as the libel trial of the decade, a case that will send tremors through the political scene. The public gallery was packed, with a sprinkling of MPs, while batteries of lawyers positioned themselves behind piles of written evidence, laptops, and copies of Hansard and the Downey Report.

The one person missing was Mr Fayed, who is not due to appear until he starts giving his evidence later in the week. His place was empty just a couple of feet away from Mr Hamilton.

The former Minister for Corporate Affairs is suing Mr Fayed and the Channel 4 programme Dispatches over claims that he had taken cash in brown envelopes for asking questions on behalf of the Harrods owner.

Mr Hamilton and his wife, Christine, arrived together. through a scrum of photographers and cameramen. Mrs Hamilton's suit was grey to match her husband's "lucky" one he had worn in a successful unrelated defamation action against the BBC over a Panorama broadcast.

Inside the courtroom Mr Hamilton sat in the front row with his legal team including two QCs and a junior barrister. He looked pale and talked in urgent whispers to those next to him. Mrs Hamilton sat three rows behind, impassive, occasionally glancing at papers in front of her.

The case, which is expected to last four weeks, will require evidence from a vast array of witnesses including, it is believed, the former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine and Edwina Currie, a former Health minister. There were indications yesterday that the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler and former Conservative Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, may also be called as witnesses by Mr Fayed's legal team.

The proceedings are expected to delve deeply into allegations of sleaze and the "culture of corruption" with which the Conservative Party became tainted and led to the disastrous defeat in the general election. Mr Fayed played a central role in the saga, alleging that he had in effect bought a number of MPs, including Mr Hamilton.

The Conservative MP was humiliatingly beaten by the anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell at Tatton and was subsequently found to have taken bribes, according to an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner Sir Gordon Downey.

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