The bitter feud of Hamilton and Fayed turns into a fight to the finish

TODAY, JUST after 10am, the former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton will be standing across a courtroom to face Mohamed Al Fayed, the man who had been not only his personal nemesis, but that of his party at the last election. What will unfold over the next month may on the surface be a libel action, but it will have far reaching political and judicial reverberations.

To most, Neil and Christine Hamilton may seem an unlikely latter day "Mr and Mrs Dreyfus", but that is how they portray themselves. And Court 13 at the High Court will see the final battle by the former MP for Tatton to clear his name, which had become synonymous with the sleaze and greed which helped push the Conservatives towards electoral disaster.

The vast array of witnesses are expected to include Edwina Currie, who, as a minister, was lobbied by Mr Hamilton on behalf of a tobacco company, and Michael Heseltine, who as President of the Board of Trade was allegedly lied to by Mr Hamilton about taking gifts.

Other former Tory ministers will figure in the evidence: Michael Howard, who, as Home Secretary. refused Mr Fayed a British passport; Jonathan Aitken, for his meeting with Arab contacts in Paris when a minister and the subsequent perjury which put him in prison; and Tim Smith, who, as an MP, admitted taking cash for questions from Mr Fayed.

The case will be bitter and deeply personal, between two men who loathe each other. Both sides talk of "blood on the walls" and fresh, explosive revelations.

Mr Hamilton says he has "his finger on the trigger" and Mr Fayed "the phoney Pharoah ... in his gunsight". He has lost a stone and half to get fighting fit for the encounter.

The multi-millionaire owner of Harrods, who had asked for and been refused permission to have six bodyguards in court, says he will have no hesitation in reiterating his account of the culture of corruption among Tories - a prospect which will make the current leader William Hague blanche.

The allegations by Mr Fayed against Mr Hamilton and fellow Tory MPs were some of the most damning examples of this "culture of corruption". Mr Hamilton, a minister of corporate affairs had, it was claimed, been "bought" by Mr Fayed to ask questions on his behalf in the House of Commons. Payments were said to have included a free holiday at the Paris Ritz Hotel, garden furniture and a series of brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

The allegations ended Mr Hamilton's political career and, he says, have made it impossible for him to get a job since. Against the wishes of the party hierarchy he decided to defend his seat against Martin Bell, the white-suited anti-sleaze candidate, providing the media with a ready-made feast, and lost humiliatingly.

The former prime minister, John Major, who had seen his Back to Basics campaign reduced to a joke by the torrent of corruption stories, wrote in his memoirs: "I did think then, and still think now ... that Neil Hamilton's candidature was bad for the Conservative cause."

More opprobrium followed. The Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, concluded after an inquiry that Mr Hamilton had indeed taken bribes. The Hamiltons say they were cast into the outer darkness, not least by the Conservative hierarchy trying to repair the party's tattered image.

The couple, who were involved in furious wrangling with the media before the election, seemed afterwards to embrace it, giving interviews, appearing on chat shows and public events. Both wrote lighthearted books parodying themselves - on battleaxes and scandals. The former brothel-keeper Cynthia Payne was among the colourful characters at Mrs Hamilton's book launch. The high Tories at the Carlton Club shuddered as the Hamiltons were accused of cashing in on their notoriety and becoming music-hall turns.

But, behind the scenes, some much more serious business was afoot. Mr Hamilton and the lobbyist Ian Greer, the conduit between Mr Fayed and a number of MPs, had attempted to sue The Guardian newspaper, which had printed the allegations. That action collapsed when a conflict arose between Mr Hamilton's and Mr Greer's cases. But the former MP was now pursuing Mr Fayed and the Channel 4 programme Dispatches for broadcasting the same allegations.

Most importantly, a group of right-wing sympathisers had set up a legal fund on behalf of the former MP, run by Lord Harris of High Cross and Norris McWhirter. Mr Hamilton claims he does not know who the donors are, but they are believed to include the Greek socialite Taki and Gyles Brandreth, the broadcaster and former Tory whip.

Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor is expected to appear for Mr Fayed. Mr Hamilton's legal team will seek to use the newspaper's internal documents - memos, reporters notes, etc - in their attempt to disprove allegations against their client.

It has taken 18 months for this case to come to the High Court. Lawyers for Mr Fayed and the Solicitor General had argued that the 1689 Bill of Rights made it impossible for Mr Hamilton to proceed with his libel action. But after a series of hearings, the House of Lords allowed him to proceed with his claims.

The stage is now set for a battle in which the costs are expected to be astronomical. Two of the most formidable and expensive QCs in the country have been hired, George Carman for Mr Fayed and Desmond Browne for Mr Hamilton. It is estimated that the Harrods owner will have spent around pounds 2m by the end of the various hearings. The former MP's bill, it is believed, will come to pounds 750,000. The losing side is expected to pick up the costs of the other side.

There will also be a human cost. Mr Fayed's conspiracy theories about the death of the Princess of Wales and his son Dodi has attracted much criticism, and he has yet again been turned down in his application for a British passport because of his allegedly chequered past. By going in the witness box he will be exposed to hostile cross-examination on both these counts. A close friend of Mr Hamilton said "We can start with `just what is your real name?' and `exactly where were you born?' We can then move on to his theories on the death of the Princess. This man has destroyed Neil's life as well as doing untold damage to the country. We shall try to prove he is a liar."

If Mr Hamilton loses, then it will be the final nail in the coffin of his ambition to return to public life, and reinforce the public perception of Tory sleaze. It will also be a setback for his supporters, some of whom harbour a deep grudge against the Egyptian-born tycoon. But if Mr Hamilton wins he is likely to attempt to reclaim the Conservative candidacy for Tatton - where George Osborne, William Hague's speech writer, confidant and ally, has already been selected. The proceedings at Court 13 promise to make anything but relaxing reading for the Conservative leader and his front bench.

MY PROUDEST MOMENT

The Hamiltons open the hostilities outside the High Court last July. The target of their writ was Fayed, seen here with Michael Cole

MY CAUSE CELEBRE

Neil Hamilton (assisted by his wife) confronts Martin Bell in Tatton. Meanwhile, Fayed campaigns too - for a British passport

MY GLORIOUS TV CAREER

The Hamiltons brave the nation's sharpest satirists on `Have I Got News For You'. Fayed appears on `Thatch of the Day' on C4

MY FAMOUS FRIENDS

`Coronation Street' star Bill Roach in a show of support for the Hamiltons as Fayed gives rock band Aerosmith the Harrods tour

THE PLAYERS

Mohamed Al Fayed

Multi-millionaire, colourful and controversial Egyptian tycoon and owner of Harrods, which he won after a fierce battle with Tiny Rowland. Alleged he bought the services of MPs, including Neil Hamilton, with gifts and cash. The allegations played a major role in the Conservatives' disastrous general election defeat. His conspiracy theories on the death of Princess Diana and his son Dodi have attracted criticism.

Neil Hamilton

Right-wing former MP and Minister for Corporate Affairs who appeared to symbolise Tory sleaze. He was humiliatingly defeated in the general election by anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell and was found to have been guilty of taking bribes by Parliamentary Commissioner Sir Gordon Downey. Fought an 18-month legal battle to sue Mr Al Fayed for libel.

Ian Greer

Highly successful lobbyist brought down by sleaze revelations. Acted as a conduit between Mr Al Fayed and a number of MPs. Started libel proceedings against The Guardian newspaper along with Mr Hamilton, but dropped the action.

George Carman, QC

Appearing for Mr Al Fayed. Highly accomplished, expensive and publicly renowned barrister who had been involved in some of the most high-profile civil and criminal cases. Can be devastating in cross-examination and valued by journalists for his "showman" qualities. He will try to destroy Mr Hamilton in the witness stand.

Desmond Browne, QC

Appearing for Mr Hamilton. Also accomplished, expensive but less well known to the general public. Laid-back, but credited with having a forensic intellect. He will try to destroy Mr Al Fayed in the stand.

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