Hamiltons: A fantasist, a publicist and the couple who refused to keep their counsel

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This was the kiss-and-tell story that had Fleet Street's cheque books flapping without so much as a peck on the cheek. A rape, a former government minister and his wife, Britain's most famous publicist and a victim who sounded as if she could have come from the higher echelons of the Tory Party; it was a recipe to make the Silly Season positively insane.

According to Nadine Milroy-Sloan ­ whose posh name belies the fact that she was a low-rent fantasist with convictions for burglary and assault ­ Neil and Christine Hamilton sexually assaulted her while she was being raped in a flat in Ilford, Essex, on 5 May.

She went to the police, who began an investigation, and it all might have stopped there had not Ms Milroy-Sloan decided to make some money out of her story. That she was taken seriously, even for a moment, speaks volumes about the media and the Hamiltons. It tells us that the media hold the Hamiltons in especially low regard. If these allegations had been made against someone whom newspaper and television news editors took seriously, they would have been investigated more thoroughly and the story ­ as so many involving politicians have in the past ­ would have been consigned to the dustbin.

But after the "cash for questions" libel case, which Mr Hamilton lost to Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, and his subsequent humiliating election defeat in Tatton to the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, it seemed the Hamiltons were regarded as fair game for anything.

Within a week of the claims surfacing through Max Clifford, it was hard to find a journalist anywhere in Fleet Street who did not believe they were anything other than utter nonsense, and still the stories ran.

However, before rushing to condemn the media, it should be noted there was a reason for the coverage: while on the one hand Ms Milroy-Sloan was preparing to demand £75,000 to drop her anonymity, as she later did, the Hamiltons' lawyer, Michael Coleman, astonished journalists by issuing a statement in which the couple dismissed the allegations before going on to describe them in more detail than had previously been released.

And it made cringing reading. According to Mr Coleman, who put all the allegations in the public domain, Ms Milroy-Sloan claimed she had been given a drink that made her "woozy" during a meeting with Barry Lehaney, a 61-year-old financial adviser who also denies the claims. Ms Milroy-Sloan said that he raped her while Mr Hamilton stimulated himself and Mrs Hamilton sat on her.

By now the episode was becoming a circus, with the Hamiltons ringside and planning to cash in. Saying, famously, that the allegations amounted to "nonsense on stilts", Christine Hamilton, 51, continued to appear with Neil, 52, as often as she could ­ each time claiming appearance fees from television stations.

The claims, the Hamiltons said, were "monstrous". Yet each time they appeared on television, collecting paycheques, they gave the story what Fleet Street calls "legs". This one would run and run.

They had been arrested and questioned on 10 August. By 11 August, the Hamiltons were acting as ringmasters in the show. They announced to one Sunday newspaper that they had an alibi for the evening of the rape ­ they hosted a dinner party ­ and released the tapes of their police interview to another paper, The Mail on Sunday, also agreeing to be interviewed by it for a reported £10,000.

That alibi, however, wasn't good enough; it turned out the "victim", still unnamed, had claimed the attack took place at about 5pm. So that allowed the Hamiltons to get themselves in the papers even more often. We were told of frantic searches for shopping receipts, putting them in Chelsea at 3.24pm and at Claridges Hotel bar between 6pm and 7.30pm, when they moved on for their dinner party.

There were at least eight witnesses who could account for their movements, guesses about how talented a cook Christine Hamilton was and speculation over how a bankrupt ­ Mr Hamilton still owes Mr Fayed about £2m in legal costs ­ could lead such a lavish life. Finally ­ as revealed by the Hamiltons in The Sun ­ there was a mobile phone record of Mrs Hamilton calling her mother from a spot 13 miles away from Ilford at the time the attack was supposed to have taken place. By now, even to those still stupid enough to believe Ms Milroy-Sloan's "nonsense on sticks", there was only ever going to be one outcome.

When Ms Milroy-Sloan dropped her anonymity for £75,000 to announce she wanted to stand up and be counted, she also dropped the ability to stop newspapers publishing items that might identify her ­ including details of her criminal record. On 20 August, some three weeks after the sordid caper began, she was again questioned by police, whom she clearly failed to impress.

Whether she will be charged with wasting police time remains to be seen. Whether the Hamiltons will continue to sue her and Max Clifford for libel, thrusting themselves into the media spotlight once again, also remains to be seen.

One thing, though, is already quite clear. The Hamiltons, their fantasist "victim" and the publicist who took on the wrong client have all been busy stuffing their pockets with money, but it is impossible to see any of them as winners. This Silly Season tale ends with only losers.