The Hamiltons: Sleazy does it

The lower they sink, the higher the returns. There is no TV show too tacky, no envelope too small, no public appearance too toe-curling for the irrepressible husband and wife double act. They know the value of a cheap laugh, but, as Max Clifford has found to his cost, even they have their standards...

The couple you just can't keep down are back again. Neither ejection from public life, bankruptcy, public humiliation, nor false accusation can deter Neil and Christine Hamilton from stealing the limelight once more. If you never wanted to hear about them again, then bad luck.

The couple you just can't keep down are back again. Neither ejection from public life, bankruptcy, public humiliation, nor false accusation can deter Neil and Christine Hamilton from stealing the limelight once more. If you never wanted to hear about them again, then bad luck.

For once, the pair who did so much to damage the reputation of the last Tory government have been indisputably wronged. The accusations made by a woman named Nadine Milroy-Sloan were so bizarre that they could almost make the soft at heart feel sorry for Mr and Mrs Hamilton. Why would a mother of young children concoct a stomach-churning fantasy about being sexually assaulted by the Hamiltons? It is an unanswerable question, like asking why an agent as shrewd and streetwise as Max Clifford should believe her. Both have paid heavily. She has been jailed for three years for perverting the course of justice, while he has agreed an out-of-court libel settlement said to be £225,000. Thus the wrong done to the Hamiltons has been put right.

Not that this will stop them from feeling wronged because this attention-seeking pair live in a universe in which they are the perennial victims of injustice. Who could forget the little tear Christine Hamilton wiped from her eye as she sat in court five years ago, describing how her husband had lost his post as a junior trade minister? "I realised that our whole lives were about to fall apart," she wept.

Mr Hamilton had been accused by The Guardian of accepting money and hospitality from Mohamed al-Fayed, the boss of Harrods, in return for asking questions in Parliament. The Hamiltons admitted spending six nights in the Paris Ritz at Mr Fayed's expense, during which they ran up an extras bill of £2,000 at 1987 prices. But the former Tory MP persistently denied the more serious allegation that he accepted envelopes stuffed with cash.

The law at that time prevented Hamilton from suing for libel because the Commons was the only court that could sit in judgment on an MP accused of abusing his position. John Major obligingly changed the law for his benefit. Hamilton dragged The Guardian almost to the courtroom door before he decided to pull out of a case he must have known he was likely to lose. But he decided to try his luck when Mr Fayed repeated the allegations. Given that Mr Fayed was the author of some pretty strange allegations, Hamilton must have calculated that no jury would believe anything he said.

Unfortunately for him, three witnesses testified that they had seen Hamilton receive envelopes of cash. The jury decided to overlook Christine Hamilton's tears and their verdict left Neil Hamilton with a legal bill that required the couple to sell their £700,000 Cheshire mansion, and forced him to declare himself bankrupt.

No one can deny that Neil and Christine Hamilton are an utterly devoted couple, who supported each other loyally through a crisis that would have destroyed many marriages. They first met more than 30 years ago, through the Federation of Conservative Students. She worked as a secretary to two other Tory MPs, and married him during the 1983 general election, when he was running to be MP for Tatton.

He had promised the Tatton Tories that if they took him as their candidate, they would get "two for the price of one", which was certainly true. Everywhere he went during his 14 years in the Commons, she was at his side. He consulted her on every decision. When his political career ended in ruin, they launched themselves as a double act at the tacky end of the celebrity business, even insisting on appearing side by side on Have I Got News for You, two guests for the price of one. At the end of the programme, they were handed an envelope said to contain their fee.

Over time, Christine overtook her husband to be the lead in their double act. Her book, Great British Battleaxes, was a publishing success. She was the one invited on to I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!. Next month she publishes her autobiography, For Better, For Worse. While he was bankrupt, it suited the couple that she was the one bringing in the money. Those hard days are behind them now. Even before last week's court hearing, they had recovered enough for Neil Hamilton to discharge his bankruptcy. They are, again, owners of a second home, a Wiltshire manor house.

The former Tory MP turned newspaper columnist Michael Brown, who has known Christine for 30 years, said: "They are irrepressible. They've had every bit of shit thrown at them, but they are the only people to have sued Max Clifford and made money out of it. Eight years ago they were finished in politics, and had been publicly humiliated. Most people in their position would either have committed suicide or ended up selling The Big Issue. But they have made the best use of their abilities, and however gaudy and tacky that may have been, they are back in business."

That view is not shared throughout the Conservative Party. Other Tories see them as a deeply selfish pair of troublemakers who immensely harmed the party that launched their careers. Hamilton was not the only Tory MP accused of taking cash for questions. The other - named with him - owned up, apologised and agreed to slip gracefully out of public life, an example the Tory establishment dearly wished the Hamiltons would follow.

But Hamilton insisted on clinging to his safe Tory seat in Cheshire as the scandal surrounding him mounted. He lost to an independent candidate, Martin Bell, running on an anti-sleaze ticket. After the verdict in the Fayed libel trial, Michael Ancram, who was then party chairman, said hopefully: "I trust that the personalities involved will now retire from the scene. They certainly can expect little understanding from this party if they do not." Later, when he heard that he might be expelled from the Conservative Party, Hamilton insouciantly revealed that he was not a member anyway.

The Hamiltons' subsequent self-rediscovery as bit-part celebrities is a symptom of the huge market for people who are famous for being flawed. The stock of old 1960s gangsters who can be rebranded as lovable villains is running out, but there are still rock stars who wreck their brains with alcohol or drugs, and semi-famous men and women, like Kimberly Quinn, who make a name for themselves by hopping from one bed to another. The entertainment industry needs people whose most obvious quality is their shamelessness. Neil and Christine Hamilton have a niche in this market, too. They are famous for being sleazy.

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