Another pay day for Neil and Christine, the couple who turn muck into brass

Neil Hamilton hasn't changed, unfortunately, not one bit. The former Conservative minister is the same grasping, boastful, smug, vulgar, deluded, obfuscating, mendacious oaf he always was. Those qualities, after all, along with a few other nastier ones, were what shot him into the public eye in the first place, when he was accused by Mohammed Al Fayed of accepting "cash for questions" - of taking payment to make planted inquiries in the House of Commons in return for plain brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

Neil Hamilton hasn't changed, unfortunately, not one bit. The former Conservative minister is the same grasping, boastful, smug, vulgar, deluded, obfuscating, mendacious oaf he always was. Those qualities, after all, along with a few other nastier ones, were what shot him into the public eye in the first place, when he was accused by Mohammed Al Fayed of accepting "cash for questions" - of taking payment to make planted inquiries in the House of Commons in return for plain brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

He was at it again yesterday, turning muck into brass, bragging about what a large sum of money he'd got out of the publicist Max Clifford. Reports suggest that it is £100,000, though the Hamiltons declare that to be "a wild underestimate". Neil, employing his trademark mix of coyness and crassness, described his latest windfall as "a very large sum of money - there were plenty of noughts on the end".

The reason why the Hamiltons have acquired this undisclosed fortune is odd. In August 2001, a mother-of-four from Grimsby, Nadine Milroy-Sloan, accused Neil and Christine Hamilton of sexual assault. Max Clifford, the bumptious tabloid publicist, took up her cause, offering - as is his wont - to organise media coverage of her sordid and intriguing story. It transpired, however, that the couple had a watertight alibi. Ms Milroy-Sloan was jailed for three years in June 2003, and the Hamiltons launched 24 defamation claims against Clifford, one for each newspaper he'd repeated Milroy-Sloan's claims in. It is those false claims that have finally come to yield such splendid rewards.

Why did Max Clifford - a highly professional operator who boasts that no other libel action against him has been successful - make such a basic, ghastly mistake? Because he held, in common with millions of others, a very low opinion of the couple, and believed (erroneously as it turned out) that no insult could drag their name deeper into the mire than it had been already.

Why did Nadine Milroy-Sloan make her own accusation? Surely, because she was tempted to see if she could get away with manipulating a pair so notorious and so high-profile.

At the the time the accusation was made, the Hamiltons were taking part in a television documentary, with Louis Theroux following them around has part of his When Louis Met ... series.

The irony is that had the Hamiltons not been such shameless publicity seekers, they would not have attracted the false accusation that has proved so profitable in the first place.

The money, so far as the grasping couple are concerned, couldn't have come at a better time. The Hamiltons have been making some impressive investments of late, having just spent nearly £1.2m on a new home in Wiltshire. Bradfield Manor is a Grade I listed domestic gothic mansion with seven bedrooms, set in 11 acres that are featured in the Domesday book. The two are very pleased with their grand new residence and call it their "Up Yours' house. Or as Neil says: "It sends a strong signal to our enemies that they have failed to destroy us. This does give a little glow of pleasure every time I cross the 15th-century threshold ..."

It is quite something, this triumphalist perspective. After all, Mr Hamilton's "enemies" have largely been his own actions and his own inability to extricate himself from the consequences. The primary claim of corruption, by Mr Fayed, that he had given Hamilton cash in return for questions in the Commons, still stands.

It was upheld first by the British public in 1997, who booted Hamilton out of his Tatton constituency despite his protestations of innocence, in favour of the white-suited broadcaster Martin Bell. It was upheld second by the Downey report into the scandal which found "compelling evidence" of Hamilton's acceptance of bribes. It was upheld third by the failure of his own libel action against Mr Fayed, which - if anything - hardened the charges.

His "friends" on the other hand, have been television producers, popular-culture purveyors, and the same media that the couple despise for "bringing them down". The British public would long have forgotten Hamilton, along with his penchant for getting something for nothing, however sleazily, if it were not for the unfortunate fact that such a flair is very much in tune with the temper of the times.

Along with his wife, Hamilton earns his living as a "celebrity", prostituting his notoriety for money and making freak-show entertainment out of his lack of shame and remorse.

Part of the problem is that neither Neil nor Christine appear to show the smallest understanding of what a seismic blow they dealt to the nation's relationship with its political leaders. Neil Hamilton's strategy is simply to deny everything. Christine, though, perhaps because she has less of a clue what it actually is that she's defending, is more open.

Christine, when interviewed by the journalist Lynn Barber, explained her husband's unchallenged acceptance of hospitality with Mr Fayed at The Ritz in these terms. "It wasn't a socking great freebie - it was no more or less than a very large number of other people did. I mean now an MP doesn't take a lump of sugar without declaring it, but in the Eighties, the climate was completely different, it was not regarded as wrong to accept hospitality. Go to Wimbledon any day and it was packed with MPs. Go to Ascot, Covent Garden - packed with MPs. All we ask is to be judged by the standards of the time. It wasn't as if we came back from The Ritz and said, Gosh, no one must know about this. We were full of it, we were so excited about it.''

Her points are telling, not just because she fails to understand that those jolly times in the Eighties were extremely damaging to the standing of all politicians, and the low level of trust the public now feels for them, but also because she admits to her longstanding tendency to boast about freebies and be excited by them.

It was probably that, as much as a desire to front things out, that led the pair to relaunch themselves as what Neil calls "media butterflies ... living on our wits, broadcasting. speaking and writing".

Initially, it was an appearance on Have I Got News For You? straight after the 1997 election. But the offers started rolling in. Christine fronted her own BBC Choice chat show, interviewing other notorious curiosities from James Hewitt to Jonathan Aitken, and naturally giving them a silky soft ride.

The pair posed naked on the cover of GQ, dressed as Adam and Eve, with only fig leaves covering their lack of modesty. They went on the road in rep appearing in a revival of the Rocky Horror Show. They appeared in panto in Guildford. Christine wrote a book of Battleaxes, Neil wrote a book of political eccentrics. Christine appeared in the first series of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! in the first of many signings by the producers that prove you don't have to be celebrated to attract the culture's most captivating misnomer.

Neil and Christine Hamilton are very far from being the only people able to parlay notoriety into fame and money.

In fact, they are even far from being the most seedy people who manage such a party trick. But they are, however, two of the most transparent proponents of the tendency and the two people who best illustrate why it is that the tendency is so unhealthy.

Christine Hamilton, on I'm A Celebrity ... may not have been the good value that Natalie Appleton was, so far as public humiliation is concerned. But her inclusion in the roster of people too desperate for money and recognition to say no, says a great deal deal about our love-hate relationship with fame and riches, and how much we want to see the famous and rich brought low.

People such as the Hamiltons are evidence of our impatience with that ritual, and our frustration over its hit-and-miss qualities. We often can't wait for that satifying arc to occur naturally. So, instead, we pretend mass-acceptance and admiration of people we can despise from the beginning.

Neil and Christine may feel that by "mining the rich seam of popular culture', as Neil calls it, they are winning.

But we, their viewers and tormentors, know that their life in the public eye is a self-imposed punishment, ensuring they will never move on. Defined by those bulging brown envelopes, Neil Hamilton continues to ensure that his fate and his wife's are inextricably linked to them.

They may feel that their wealth is compensation enough for that humiliation. But we all know that's just because they are unable to leave their materialistic corruption behind them and learn from their awful and vile mistakes. How nastily entertaining the spectacle is. And how similarly corrupt our culture is, to believe it is worth showering this pair with wealth in order to watch their own powerlessness before Mammon.

IN THE LIMELIGHT

General election 1983: Neil Hamilton elected Conservative MP for Tatton.

October 1994: Hamilton quits as Corporate Affairs Minister after The Guardian publishes allegations that he took money from Mohammed Al Fayed to ask questions in the Commons.

May 1997: Hamilton loses his parliamentary seat to BBC journalist Martin Bell in the wake of "Cash for Questions" sleaze allegations.

September 1997: Mr Fayed alleges Hamilton accepted £30,000 in brown envelopes.

November 1999: Neil Hamilton, with his wife Christine, sues Mr Fayed in a memorable libel action and tries to clear his name of sleaze allegations.

December 1999: Hamilton drops the action amid evidence of generous hospitality enjoyed at the Paris Ritz and the now famous brown envelopes.

August 2001: The Hamiltons are arrested after an allegation of sexual abuse is made by Nadine Milroy-Sloan, who took her claims to the publicist Max Clifford.

January 2002: The Hamiltons are photographed nude, as Adam and Eve, on the front of GQ magazine.

October 2002: Christine Hamilton appears on Have I got News for You and taunts host, Angus Deayton, over his private life. Deayton is later sacked.

June 2003: Milroy-Sloan is jailed for three years for perverting the course of justice.

2 February 2005: Max Clifford settles a libel action brought by the Hamiltons over comments he made during the fake sex allegations case brought by Milroy Sloan. The settlement is believed to be more than £100,000.

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