Hamilton: a man clinging to his tattered reputation

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Anyone who witnessed Neil Hamilton's performance at the Tory party conference in Blackpool will never forget it.

He was a genuine star, wowing the faithful with a bravura theatrical performance, producing reams of computer paper and throwing it in the air as evidence of the red tape that was holding back enterprise and how he, as a junior minister, was going to scrap it. The faithful adored him. He was cocksure, a charmer, one surely destined for greatness.

In fact, it was the high point of his political career. Unknown to Mr Hamilton, the owner of Harrods, Mohammed Fayed, was brooding, determined to wreak revenge for what he saw as a slight. Anxious to secure a UK passport, Mr Fayed paid Tory MPs to lobby on his behalf. Among them was Neil Hamilton who, with his wife, Christine, stayed at Mr Fayed's hotel, The Ritz in Paris and lived the high life at his expense. There was more: Mr Fayed gave him cash in brown envelopes. But of the hoped-for citizenship there was not a sign.

When Mr Fayed's smarting became too much for him to bear and he went public, the ensuing "cash for questions" scandal engulfed Mr Hamilton. He denied it, of course, but to no avail. He stood down as a minister but refused to leave the stage, insisting, to the fury of senior colleagues, of fighting the 1997 election in his Tatton, Cheshire constituency.

Mr Hamilton was a man possessed, heaping scorn on his main opponent, the independent candidate Martin Bell. Everyone could see Mr Hamilton was a loser – everyone seemingly that is, but Mr and Mrs Hamilton.

They presented a defiantly British picture to the world: him with his slightly long, swept back hair and sober grey suits, smooth, unfazed talk; she, always with big Tory hair and pearls, a strident, haughty high cheek-boned blonde with flashing eyes.

Ever since the dam broke, they have fought to clear his name, missing no opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, to put their side of the story. There cannot be a chat show sofa in the land that has not borne the Hamilton imprint.

But there is something oddly endearing about them as well. When you meet them, they are like first-time lovers, gazing into each other's eyes. They have no children, their lives have been politics. Ask him a question and he will often hang back while she answers for him. Despite his once successful career, she is the strong one, proud and unabashed, an MP's secretary who became a national battleaxe.

They don't do small talk. Over dinner, they resist attempts to steer the conversation away from their struggle, wanting to go through one more time what they see as Fayed's lies and the great injustice done to them. A pariah in the party that once applauded him off the stage, Mr Hamilton is a forlorn figure. Bankrupt financially and politically, he jogs round Battersea Park near his London flat most mornings. Then he goes home and waits for the phone to ring. Apart from TV producers with airtime to fill and a few friends who feel he was maligned by Mr Fayed and the press and still stand by him, it is hard to imagine who calls.

Burdened with debts estimated at £3m from legal bills, the couple face the ignominy of having to sell their rambling Cheshire home. Then what? More interviews, more publicity stunts (nearly always with a fee attached). They will not go away: a lasting, infuriating reminder to the Tories of what they would prefer to forget.

Mr Fayed will not let them rest, either. He still rants about them as if their sin was committed yesterday. Too much mud has been thrown for either side to forgive. It will not be lost on observers of this soap opera that the hand of Max Clifford, the publicist, could be detected yesterday. Mr Clifford said he was approached by a woman with a sex story. She is the woman now thought to have complained to the police, sparking the arrest of the Hamiltons. Mr Clifford's main client is Mr Fayed. What goes round, comes round.