A good reason for Hamilton not to resign

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Indy Politics
Visitors to the sprawling rectory in Nether Alderley, Cheshire, that is home to the MP Neil Hamilton are greeted by two uncompromising Tory women. The first, clearly visible through the glass panel on the front door, is Margaret Thatcher, a few inches short of life size and seated on a low chair in the hall. The cardboard cut-out Baroness is for once in two-dimensional contrast with the flesh-and-blood Iron Lady who answers the door. She is Christine Hamilton, a lady who, as others call for her husband to fall on his sword, is emphatically not for turning.

The term "politician's wife" has come to symbolise blue-suited women smiling through their teeth in the glare of negative publicity. Mrs Hamilton is no such spouse. It is she rather than her husband who is at the centre of the web of influence that prompted the "cash for questions" enquiry.

It was Christine Hamilton who introduced Neil Hamilton to the lobbyist Ian Greer and to Michael Grylls, Mr Greer's close contact in the Commons. And it was she who booked the fateful room 356 at the Paris Ritz, which set the sleaze allegations in motion. It is her name which appears on a vital piece of evidence, a chit from the Peter Jones department store for pounds 1,000-worth of garden furniture for which Ian Greer paid.

She married Neil Hamilton five days before his 1983 election to the safe Conservative seat of Tatton. Since then, she has dedicated herself wholeheartedly - the couple have no children - to his career. She has everything to lose if her husband bows out.

Visitors to Westminster, where Mrs Hamilton acts as her husband's secretary, could be forgiven for thinking she is an MP, not just because of her uncanny resemblance to Virginia Bottomley, but also because of the way she so clearly calls the shots in the Hamilton political machine.

And indeed there was a time when her ambitions were for herself: in the 1980s Mrs Hamilton dreamed of representing the constituency neighbouring her husband's.

"I went to York University to study politics and I had every intention of becoming an MP," she says. At York, her two closest friends were the fellow Tories Michael Brown, who last week also found himself under pressure to resign over cash-for-questions allegations, and Harvey Proctor, who became a Tory MP but had to resign over a conviction for indecency.

Christine Holman met Neil Hamilton at a Young Conservatives Conference when their "eyes met across a crowded room", although any chemistry between them did not stop her voting against her future husband in a ballot for the chairmanship of the Federation of Conservative Students, instead endorsing Andrew Neil, the future editor of the Sunday Times.

They were together three years but the relationship temporarily ended when she moved to London to be Michael Grylls' secretary - "to get a foot in the door of national politics". It was much later, when Neil Hamilton had found a safe seat, that she abandoned ideas of becoming an MP and instead became his wife and political secretary. Her motto since marriage has been: "We do things together". She even tidies his hair for him before he gives interviews.

Constituents in Knutsford, at the heart of the Hamilton constituency, think her ambitions may not yet be over. "We keep expecting him to stand down and her to spring back in his place," one local Tory said. "After all, she is the power behind the throne." She is dismissive with the ease of habit: "Well, at least they wouldn't have to change the election posters."

The Hamiltons like to joke, something they both do well, to dodge sticky situations. Last Thursday, Mr Hamilton was on fine form surveying the wreckage after the IRA bomb at Wilmslow. "I can see the Guardian headline now," he said - "Sleaze MP tries to divert attention". The couple have been more careful about using the deflecting power of humour, however, since Mr Hamilton was pictured "declaring" a biscuit when the cash-for- questions story broke. Central Office apparently took a dim view of jests about ginger nuts from an MP against whom serious allegations had been made.

Back at the Hamiltons' front door, however, there are two jokes designed to ward off nervous callers. The first is the cardboard lady, a cheeky gesture of respect to a former prime minister both deeply admire. The second is a sign warning visitors to "Stand very still" should the occupants' dogs corner them. There is a moral in the second joke. "You shouldn't believe everything you read in print," says Mrs Hamilton. The Hamiltons own no dogs.

They also have no children, a puzzling fact given the toys that litter the back lawn. "I suppose," sighs Mrs Hamilton, who uncannily always answers both door and telephone whether in the Commons, constituency or at The Rectory, "people will be saying that we ate our children next."

The toys, she says, belong to a friend's offspring, who are frequent visitors. But, as ever with explanations given by the Hamiltons, the truth is more complex. The couple have no children because they, as a single political entity had sacrificed child-rearing for politics, Mrs Hamilton has said. She is 47 and as that career crumbles about them, there is a pathos to those plastic toys. The word in Tatton is that Mrs Hamilton has given up too much to let her husband renounce his political career.

Without it he might practise law again, even if returning to being a tax barrister might seem like another Hamilton joke. She, on the other hand, could never again be an MP's secretary with the power to run the seat.

If John Major is considering trying to persuade the MP for Tatton to reconsider his position, he might do well to make the call to the politician's wife.