Hamilton heads for safety of the bunker

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Indy Politics
The bowling green behind the Tatton Conservative Association in Knutsford was empty yesterday, the office doors battened against the slings and arrows of angry constituents and waiting journalists.

But last night, below ground in a bunker-like meeting room, the party faithful were rallying round Neil Hamilton.

The Cheshire MP was in fighting form - veering between a barrage of humorous insults against his tormentors, the Guardian and Mohamed al Fayed, and a robust defence of his personal integrity.

"I never took any money from Mr Fayed and that comes out unambiguously in the inquiry," he said quietly. But the shaking of his hands as he pointed to highlighted paragraphs of the disputed transcript belied the conviction in his voice.

Mr Hamilton said the "cornerstone" of the allegations made against him two-and-a- half years ago at the outset of the "cash-for-questions saga" as he refers to it, had been disproved the day before in the Standards Committee report which exonerated 15 high-profile ministers from accepting money from Mr Fayed. "This is exactly the same money that Mr Greer [the lobbyist Ian Greer] was supposed to have given to me," he said. "He can't have given it to us both. One of the reasons I suggest that they print the full transcript of the evidence of Mr Fayed, a full transcript of which I've got here, is that it will reveal the allegations are made up." Mr Hamilton denied he was at any risk of deselection at the constituency's annual meeting last night, and he had a message for disloyal constituents.

"There are people in this country who believe that because something appears in a newspaper in this country it must be true. My experience in the past two years is precisely the reverse.

"I would just say to those who privately think it would be better for me to stand down ... what has happened to one of the cardinal principles of this country, that a man is innocent until proven guilty?"

The early signs last night were that Mr Hamilton would weather the deselection crisis ahead.

A local party insider said: "Frankly, we have considered getting rid of Neil and we could easily do so without affecting our chances of winning the seat.

"We could put almost anyone up ... it's a standing joke in Tatton that we could put up a monkey in a blue jacket in these parts and still win. The point is that we don't want to - we'd rather have Neil. We've watched him being crucified over the last two years and, to be honest, most of us feel sorry for the man."