Seldom had the sedate courtroom of the High Court in London seen such vitriol being flung. But yesterday the libel action brought by Neil Hamilton against Mohamed Al Fayed was as bitter and corrosive as both sides had threatened.
As well as savage personal attacks came a portrait of the rich and influential world in which the former Tory minister and the multi-millionaire owner of Harrods moved. Extravagance at the Paris Ritz Hotel and massive kickbacks were described. The cast in the tale of a destructive feud included Tony Blair and John Major; Michael Heseltine and Michael Howard; Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Duke of Edinburgh.
The former Conservative MP for Tatton, Mr Hamilton, who is suing Mr Fayed, sat just a couple of feet from his nemesis. The Egyptian-born tycoon, dressed in a dark-grey suit, stared hard at Mr Hamilton, who in turn was wearing what he terms his "lucky" grey suit and glanced occasionally towards Mr Fayed before whispering to his wife, Christine, also dressed in grey.
There was nothing grey about the account being unfolded. George Carman QC, for the defence, told the jury: "We shall prove in this court that Mr Hamilton was a greedy and somewhat unscrupulous politician who was on the make and on the take. Over the years, he showed his character to be deeply flawed by a degree of dishonesty, by half truths and lies."
By 1997, when Channel 4 broadcast its Dispatches programme in which Mr Fayed made allegations about Mr Hamilton, he already had a "bad reputation as a corrupt MP willing to exploit his position to make money and whose name was linked forever to the word sleaze", Mr Carman said.
In the packed courtroom, he described payments Mr Fayed gave Mr Hamilton for his services as an MP and asking parliamentary questions. There was cash in brown envelopes, Harrods gift vouchers worth thousands, and free holidays at Mr Fayed's castle in Scotland, his son Dodi's apartment at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and a week at the Paris Ritz that Mr Carman held up as a prime example of the greed and gluttony of the Hamiltons. Between 1987 and 1989 it added up to pounds 30,000 in cash and pounds 8,000 in gift vouchers, he said.
Mr Carman described how Mr Fayed and Mr Hamilton had met over the former's prolonged battle with fellow tycoon Tiny Rowland of Lonrho for control of the House of Fraser and Harrods. He said Mr Rowland was furious when Mr Fayed bought Harrods in 1985 and mounted a propaganda campaign against him using The Observer, which he owned, and the chairman of Lonrho, Sir Edward du Cann, head of the 1922 Committee of MPs.
To counter this, Mr Fayed used the lobbyist Ian Greer, who assembled a quartet of MPs - Sir Peter Hordern, Michael Grylls, Timothy Smith and Mr Hamilton. Mr Carman said: "The conduct of this parliamentary quartet was controlled, orchestrated and set tasks by Mr Greer." He said Mr Hamilton would go to Harrods and be given cash by Mr Fayed in plastic wallets straight from the bank containing pounds 2,500 a time in new pounds 50 notes. In addition, Mr Hamilton picked up envelopes of cash at the reception desk of Mr Fayed's offices in Park Lane and had cash couriered to his home in Cheshire.
Mr Carman said Mr Hamilton had lied to Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister at the time, about his financial relationship with Mr Greer when he was a trade and industry minister, and failed to register thousands of pounds of benefits received from companies.
As a result Mr Hamilton was condemned in 1997 by fellow MPs who commended his suspension from the House of Commons for conduct "bordering on indifference or contempt towards the rules of the House". Sir Gordon Downey, as Parliamentary Commissioner, said the probability was that Mr Hamilton had accepted money from Mr Fayed.
Desmond Browne QC, acting for Mr Hamilton, described Mr Fayed as a "fabulous pharaoh of 1985 who was really a phoney pharaoh of 1999 and who would be buried by the sheer bulk of his lies".
"Mr Al Fayed is a classic Jekyll and Hyde figure," he said. "On the one hand you have apparently a suave proprietor of the great Knightsbridge store, who acted as host to the royal family ... but when one strips away the superficial joviality, you find a deeply dishonest man with an evil penchant for the vindictive pursuit of those who had fallen foul of him."
He told the jury it was the tycoon who was the liar: "Mr Fayed is a habitual liar, a man for whom lying has become a sickness. Mr Fayed's whole commercial life was founded on a lie as to the source of the fund he used to buy Harrods."
Mr Browne maintained that Mr Fayed's mission of ven-geance began when a critical report by the Department of Trade and Industry was published about the Harrods take-over. The tycoon atacked Mr Hamilton and the former home secretary Michael Howard. "Mr Howard became the victim of a shocking story put about by Mr Fayed that he had taken a huge bribe up to pounds 5m to appoint the DTI inspectors. There was never a shred of evidence for the story."
Mr Browne also claimed Mr Fayed told lies about the relationship between his son and the Princess of Wales. He said: "He has said repeatedly that to prevent the forthcoming marriage of Dodi and the Princess of Wales they were murdered by British Intelligence on the direction of Prince Philip."
The trial continues.Reuse content