The Cash-for-Questions Affair: Ritz trip takes biscuit in Cheshire

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The Independent Online
THERE IS no Ritz hotel in Knutsford, and Neil Hamilton's constituents were uncertain yesterday how to react to reports of their MP's pounds 4,200 stay at the five- star establishment in Paris, paid for by Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of Harrods, writes Jonathan Foster.

'It's one thing to entertain important contacts, altogether different to buy favours,' three businessmen said on their way to a brasserie lunch in the affluent mid-Cheshire town. 'There seems to be no suggestion that he did anybody any favours because they paid for him and his wife to stay in an hotel. Would there be such a frantic fuss if he'd stayed in a pension?'

Mr Hamilton won a 15,860 majority at the 1992 general election in his Tatton constituency, west of Macclesfield.

'I have the full support of the Prime Minister and that is demonstrated by being a member of his administration, and that's the end of the matter,' Mr Hamilton, 45, said as he left his pounds 550,000 home in the constituency with his wife Christine.

Alan Barnes, chairman of the Tatton Conservative Association, said he was confident the Hamiltons would show the same resolve in the face of the Fayed allegations as they had when successfully suing the BBC for claiming he had extreme right- wing opinions.

'I have every confidence in Neil as our MP, and have no doubt whatsoever about his personal integrity,' Mr Barnes said.

The association offices yesterday maintained media silence about their MP's weekend appointments and consultations, but some activists said privately that his fate was not in their hands. 'We cannot challenge his honesty. If he says the allegations are libellous, and if John Major stands by him, there's nothing we can do,' one said.

'This is not like Tim Yeo and his love child. The local association has to take his word for it, but I must say I can't see how he can do a job in Trade and Industry until this is sorted out.'

Knutsford voters said they were worried that their MP may have stepped in some clinging sleaze. 'But we don't know enough about it,' one man said.

'Until he's proved guilty, I don't think it's fair to draw any conclusions.'

Two young mothers said Mr Hamilton was not well known locally. 'I don't know anything about him,' one said. 'I think it's up to John Major to keep a watch on what ministers are doing, but if someone offered me a weekend in Paris, I'd take it.'

Mr Hamilton said he had been 'overwhelmed by the effusiveness of the support and sympathy' he had received.

(Photograph omitted)