With a little help from his friends

As former Tory MP Neil Hamilton does battle in his libel case, he attracts support from some surprising quarters, reports Cal McCrystal
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The Independent Online
THERE IS always something a little ludicrous in the spectacle of a politician in pursuit of his legal remedies. It suggests, say, a sailor on horseback, or a scoutmaster in the casino; incongruities worthy of lighthearted contemplation. To reduce such comic impact, a wise political litigant will seek gravitas from the company of loyal friends and attendants as he enters and leaves the court, and while pleading his case within it.

The former Tory MP and vexed litigant Neil Hamilton is not short of friends to offer him succour in his hour of need. At the High Court in London where he is attempting to defend his honour and integrity against Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods and Punch, Mr Hamilton's "loyalists" may be seen in the well of the court and the public gallery, and occasionally in the long queue patiently awaiting admittance outside.

Some smile encouragingly at him after his gruelling sessions in the witness box. Some press his flesh, or fork out for his victuals at lunchtime eateries. A few, though not many, perhaps, write kindly about him and his fall from grace. So who specifically would Mr Hamilton call his helpful friends?

His closest friend and mentor is, of course, his wife. They arrive at court hand-in-hand and leave similarly welded. Christine Hamilton's constant displays of solicitude towards her husband seem as much maternal as uxorial.

At times they also seem professional. George Carman QC, Mr Fayed's counsel, asked Mr Hamilton, who entered politics after 18 months' pupillage at the Bar, if he had ever had a barrister's clerk. The ex-MP said, "No"; nor chambers either. But Christine Hamilton is clearly his acting clerk, for she coaches him in his paperwork and memory skills, and generally organises him.

As he gazes down on her in the well of the court, her blonde hair like a waterfall sweeping to her collar, it is obvious that she is a comfort to him.

Friend No 2, his "lucky grey suit", has never detached itself from its master throughout this libel hearing. Where the plaintiff's sang-froid has shown occasional signs of heat, Friend No 2, tried and tested in earlier legal conflict, has never crumpled. When attacked, it shoots cuffs. Its trousers are knife-edged. It is armour.

I asked around and discovered that Mr Hamilton can rely on a bunch of people with diverse occupations and personal habits. Aldershot's Tory MP Gerald Howarth looks in every day. Occasionally, Derek Laud, a London socialite, the sole black member of the Monday Club and Master of Fox Hounds, puts in an appearance. So does Jonathan Boyd Hunt, who has written a book more sympathetic than most about Mr Hamilton's woes. Edward Leigh, who was Margaret Thatcher's parliamentary under-secretary of state at the DTI, has shown his face.

The plaintiff and his wife are grateful for this moral support. Aristotle held that good law-givers had more respect for friendship than for justice. As a former law-giver with a philosophical mien, Mr Hamilton would wish to muse on that assertion before committing himself. But while he muses, he can count on other sources of valuable support, such as Lord Harris of High Cross, an amateur conjurer who is a director of Times Newspapers and the author of a work titled Down with the Poor. He is also honorary treasurer and a trustee of the Ross McWhirter Foundation which looks kindly on right-wing ideologues and their causes. The late Ross McWhirter's brother, Norris, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records and a former athletics correspondent of the Observer, is another fan of the man in Court 13. The actor William Roache - Ken Barlow of Coronation Street - has spoken out on his behalf.

The Labour peer Baroness Turner, who used to work for the lobbyist Ian Greer, whose name figures in the trial, is also a friend. But neither she nor another female sympathiser, Patsy Turner-Smith, of Tatton Conservative Association's women's branch, have managed a day in court.

Nicky Haslam, the interior designer, who describes the Hamiltons as "recent, but not great friends", has also not made the trip.

"I am very fond of Christine," he said. "She's a very Christian woman, and I've seen her give enormous support not only to Neil but to other people. I hear you can't get into the spectators' gallery for love or money. But of course I'll support a friend in his hour of need."

But the most zealous support comes from the Spectator columnist Taki Theodoracopulous, a man of not a little wealth and not a lot of influence, whose attitude to Mr Hamilton may be enhanced by his own past appearance in court on a drugs charge (for which he did time).

Besides these Hamilton loyalists are a few other people who, though their presence may buoy him up, might be regarded as extraneous to him. I talked to one in the gallery queue. He was of oriental appearance and spoke imperfect English, but he described the plaintiff as "a fallen angel who deserves to fly again". A small dark woman was equally supportive. Both famous and anonymous fans, one imagines, have enabled Neil Hamilton to maintain an air of equanimity throughout much of the arduous ritual.

No doubt he would wish to claim Candour as a friend into the bargain. But Mr Carman did not ease his path in this regard.

Mr Carman: "You were not telling the whole truth ... "

Plaintiff: "I disagree."

"You said you had a lack of candour."

"Yes."

"Is there a difference? Do you understand the words, `to tell the whole truth?' I should warn you that whatever answer you give, I shall wish to address the jury on it. If you address the question with a lack of candour, do you think you have failed to tell the whole truth?"

"I find it difficult. It is impossible to give any meaning to the answer."

At which point it was possible to believe that Mrs Hamilton's black- and-red houndstooth suit had more bite than her husband's responses. The above rejoinders to Mr Carman were made from a standing position, when the "lucky suit" was in fuller display.

Mr Hamilton tends to stand up to give evidence in the morning, and sit down for it after lunch. He performs better while seated, if only because Mr Carman displays less pugnacity against the lower profile.

As his cross-examination has proceeded, Mr Carman seems to have become uncharacteristically tetchy at some his adversary's answers concerning the tasks the latter was expected to perform in return for a pounds 10,000 fee from Mobil Oil. If he had been paid the fee primarily to promote a parliamentary Bill, the QC asked, "Would that have been corrupt?"

Mr Hamilton: "It depends on what you mean by `primarily'." He went on to suggest that Mr Carman's questions were "prejudicial".

Mr Carman: "It is my task to ask prejudicial questions."

Mr Hamilton scratched his forehead, sipped from a glass of water, ran his right forefinger across his chin and poked his ear with his left forefinger.

The swordsmanship between Mr Carman and Mr Hamilton became quite heated over what the former described as the plaintiff's "demand" of money from Mobil.

"I wouldn't call it demand."

"Would you call it overture?"

"It was an approach."

When the lawyer pressed on, Mr Hamilton said tersely: "Don't hector me, Mr Carman!"

As I glanced at the jurors, two of whom were chewing lozenges and one of whom was fending off weariness, that oft-repeated line from Cymbeline wrote itself, virtually unprompted, into my notebook: "Boldness be my friend! /Arm me, audacity."

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