Mellor and Bauwens must wait for verdicts: Jurors could not agree over a minister's sunshine holiday - and Conservative supporters may prove equally divided. Andrew Gliniecki reports

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The Independent Online
BY ANY standards, it had the making of a superb holiday in an idyllic setting. A pounds 750,000 villa overlooking the Mediterranean in Marbella decked out with antiques and equipped with a swimming pool, whirlpool bath and tennis court.

When David Mellor arrived with his wife Judith and two children, in August 1990, it must have seemed like the start of a sojourn in paradise But the expenses were paid by a friend, Mona Bauwens, whose father was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

There were two events which would ensure that this holiday would enter modern day political folklore. Firstly, Saddam Hussein went on the warpath against Kuwait and secondly, the People newspaper went on the warpath against Mr Mellor's political judgement.

On 2 September, under the headline 'Top Tory and the PLO Paymaster', the People claimed that as Britons were being held hostage in the Gulf, Mr Mellor had been sunning himself 'with wealthy Palestinian Mona Bauwens . . . whose father is a supporter of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein'. Mr Mellor was attacked for being 'not in the least embarrassed' over the holiday.

No other national newspaper printed a follow-up. But two years later, the entire British media were hanging on every word of the libel action brought by Mrs Bauwens in the belief that the People had made her out to be 'a social leper' not fit to be seen with the then Minister for the Arts.

The difference now is that Mr Mellor's judgement is very much in the media spotlight. The real trigger for the yards of newspaper copy speculating about his future came in July with revelations of his affair with Antonia de Sancha - also the work of the People.

Alleged details of the liaison came thick and fast. The Sun put together a picture of Mr Mellor kitted out in a Chelsea football team strip for his nights of love. The Mirror had him reciting Hamlet in moments of passion.

The Daily Mail joined in with 'A love nest, Mellor and a tycoon' which linked Mr Mellor with a property developer, who allegedly provided a Mayfair mews house where Mr Mellor and Ms de Sancha met.

Nor was it just the tabloids which followed the Mellor developments closely. Even before the Mona Bauwens libel case, sections of the press had doubted whether Mr Mellor had the credibility to soldier on. It was felt he could not be truly independent in his role as minister responsible for press matters after the articles which had been published about him.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the Daily Mail, the voice of middle-class Tory voters, called for his scalp. A leading article on 9 September said: 'The case against David Mellor is not only that he has been unfaithful, but also that he is a fool. It is less a question of his morals than his judgement.'

John Major stood by his friend, making it clear he did not regard his behaviour as cause for resignation. But doubts lingered on.

Even though Mr Mellor did not attend the High Court libel action, his presence was felt by everyone there. The jury learnt how, as their friendship developed before the holiday, Mr Mellor had dropped in on Mrs Bauwens for tea, how the two of them had discussed their families and the opera and how John Major had sent Mr Mellor a note saying there was nothing wrong with the friendship.

Even though it was Mrs Bauwens who had brought the action, in many ways it was Mr Mellor who was on trial. Mrs Bauwens clearly felt that she had unfairly been caught in the crossfire. But it was minister's conduct which drew perhaps the most clever and cutting verbal assault of the seven day hearing from George Carman QC, acting for the People, when he said in his closing speech: 'Marbella has sand, sea and sunshine and, if a politician goes there and, in the honest view of some, behaves like an ostrich and puts his head in the sand and thereby exposes his thinking parts, it may be a newspaper is entitled to say so.'

He later added: 'When the clouds of war gather around the country and the nation takes the strain, you expect, do you not - each and every one of you - from ministers of the Crown undivided, unambiguous loyalty in conduct and never ever for a minister to put himself in any association with a friend of an enemy?'

The jury in this case apparently failed to come to a firm conclusion, and it may be that Mr Mellor's political colleagues and the Tory Party's supporters have yet to deliver their final verdict.

(Photographs omitted)