The Hamilton Affair: The vanquished - Hamilton, a fatally flawed politician on the make who grabbed, gambled, lied and lost

LAST SATURDAY, the day after a highly favourable summing up by the judge in his libel action against Mohamed Al Fayed, the former Tory MP Neil Hamilton was musing how and when to make his political return. His formidable wife, Christine, was starting her memoirs which would chart their victory over adversity.

Last night, all that turned to ashes. Mr Hamilton is a man destroyed, financially ruined and branded a corrupt politician whose name is a byword for sleaze.

As the foreman of the jury returned the verdict yesterday, after a day and half of tense waiting, the Hamiltons seemed to break physically. They buried their heads in their hands and began to shake. Mrs Hamilton, who had wept when the jury had gone out, now appeared dry-eyed, in a state of shock. It was her husband who wept.

Afterwards, wearing his "lucky" suit dating back to a previous, successful, libel action, he put his arm around her and talked about their devastation and also "rebuilding... picking up pieces". His friends and supporters stood talking in whispers.

Mr Hamilton, 50, was looking into the abyss. But many would say it was his own fatal flaw, a greed for money and a belief that he could fool people, which had brought him there.

Mostyn Neil Hamilton's parliamentary career was undistinguished until Baroness Thatcher made him a whip. In many ways he was a archetypal Thatcherite, without a privileged background, who had made his own way. Indeed, so great is his admiration for the former prime minister that a cardboard cut-out of her stands at his home, the Old Rectory in Nether Alderley, Cheshire.

When he was in the Commons, Mr Hamilton, who trained as a barrister, was not easily ignored. He supported the death penalty and corporal punishment and was an outspoken critic of Nelson Mandela, dismissing the African National Congress as "a typical terrorist organisation".

But he was susceptible to financial inducements, and in the lobbyist Ian Greer he found a lucrative source of income who paid him handsome commission for introducing businesses. So Mr Hamilton was a natural recruit for Mr Greer when he organised a campaign by MPs to combat an offensive by Mr Fayed's arch rival, Tiny Rowland, over the purchase of Harrods.

In September 1987, Neil and Christine Hamilton went to stay at the Paris Ritz hotel, owned by Mr Fayed, at his invitation. Not a single morsel of the bill they ran up escaped scrutiny at the trial, from the four-course dinners, vintage champagnes and fine wines, to the charging of postage stamps.

The jury was told that every night the couple dined in the hotel's two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Every stamp they bought, all parking charges, all laundry, all telephone calls and all newspapers were billed to Mr Fayed. Frank Klein, the hotel's president, said that even for the Ritz the total - just over pounds 2,000 in 1987, and about pounds 3,238 today - was "a very large bill". Christine Hamilton said she had to rest in their room in the afternoons because of a recurring back problem and a viral infection and consumed "copious amounts of water and fruit juice and things like that, and, because of my bad back, alcohol, which is a great cure if you have a bad back".

But Mr Hamilton's cosy relationship with Mr Fayed collapsed when the former was appointed minister for corporate affairs by John Major and he toed the line of the Department of Trade and Industry. A vengeful Mr Fayed "shopped" Mr Hamilton and other MPs who had helped him, starting a wave of sleaze stories.

An inquiry by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner, found Mr Hamilton guilty of taking cash for questions on behalf of Mr Fayed, and this was subsequently confirmed by the Commons Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which scathingly criticised the MP for Tatton.

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 feast. He lost.

Mr Hamilton could have backed out of the public gaze then. But his hubris would not let him. He had won a libel action against the BBC in the past with help from rich right-wing sympathisers, and he turned to them again. They set up a fund for the legal fight, guided by a belief that Mr Hamilton had been treated badly by Sir Gordon and the select committee, and also by a loathing of Mr Fayed.

The couple, involved in furious wrangling with the media before the election, now seemed to embrace it. Both wrote lighthearted books parodying themselves - on battleaxes and scandals. Mr and Mrs Hamilton, who married during the 1983 general election campaign, were photographed in a Sunday tabloid offering themselves for hire as a cook and butler, and they offered themselves as holiday replacements for Richard and Judy on their This Morning television show.

The high Tories at the Carlton Club shuddered, the Hamiltons were accused of cashing in on their notoriety and becoming comic music-hall turns. They became more concerned when Mr Hamilton, at his pounds 700,000 home in Tatton and pounds 300,000 flat in Battersea, south London, began to talk about trying to regain the candidacy at Tatton where George Osborne, Mr Hague's speech writer, confidant and ally, has already been selected.

Mr Hamilton lost a stone and half to get "fighting fit" for his courtroom battle, and talked about having "his finger on the trigger" and the "Phoney Pharaoh [Mr Fayed]""in his gunsight".

Mr Fayed, in turn, threatened to revisit sleaze on the Tories and reports began to circulate that his redoubtable QC, George Carman, had some explosive new material on Mr Hamilton.

And in the end it was that - the nature of his financial links with Mobil Oil which Mr Hamilton had hidden from his own government, the Downey inquiry and the select committee - which sank him. He had been greedy, gambled, lied and lost.