Comment: Brown envelopes, battleaxes and very easy targets

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The Independent Online
For some time now, the words "Neil Hamilton" and "brown envelope" have been synonymous. The easiest way to raise a laugh on satirical programmes like Radio 4's The News Quiz is to make a reference to the disgraced former minister and used fivers, a courtesy which has been extended to his wife in the shape of feeble jokes about paying in cash for copies of her Bumper Book of British Battleaxes.

Mrs Hamilton's foray into publishing may have been ill-conceived, but something curious is going on here. In the blizzard of accusations against Mr Hamilton, which include lying to Michael Heseltine over his relationship with the lobbyist Ian Greer, one charge stands out and has even given its name to the affair: that he took cash from Mohammed Al Fayed in return for asking parliamentary questions.

On Thursday, the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee condemned Mr Hamilton for falling "seriously and persistently" below the conduct expected of MPs - a judgement which sounds unequivocal. On closer inspection, however, it adds nothing to our knowledge of the key charge. The committee, chaired by Robert Sheldon MP, did not question Mr Fayed or the two Harrods employees who supported his claim; it is not even clear whether it endorsed the earlier finding by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, that there was "compelling" evidence that Mr Hamilton accepted cash from Mr Fayed.

A headline in Friday's Guardian asserting "Nine votes to nil - he took the cash" was contradicted in the Daily Telegraph, whose chief political correspondent insisted, "A Commons inquiry failed to reach a verdict on the central issue of whether [Mr Hamilton] had taken cash for questions." What is the disinterested observer to make of these claims, counter-claims and outbreaks of righteous indignation?

In a story that has consistently veered towards farce, Mr Hamilton's decision to base his defence before the committee on tape recorded conversations between Mr Fayed and the Lonrho chief, Tiny Rowland, was a mistake. What they revealed is that Mr Fayed is obsessed with the size of his penis, a fact so diverting to (male) journalists that a more important point got lost in an outburst of delighted hilarity.

Mr Fayed is a controversial figure. He is currently contesting the decision of successive Conservative governments to deny him a British passport, a denial based on his failure to supply a wholly convincing account of his family's origins or the source of his fortune. He is not, it might be said, an impartial witness. Nor can we accept Mr Sheldon's comparison of his committee's verdict to the outcome of judicial proceedings, since Mr Fayed's testimony has never been subjected to the forensic scrutiny it would receive in a court of law.

The irony is that the former MP for Tatton stands condemned as Neil "cash- for-questions" Hamilton - the one charge against him which has not been proved to anything like the standard that would be required in a criminal trial. He may be foolish and venal but that does not mean he is any less entitled to the assumption, central to British law, that someone is innocent of specific charges until proved guilty.

ANOTHER unappetising feature of the affair is the way in which open season has been declared on Christine Hamilton. During John Major's scandal- ridden administration, we got used to the spectacle of Tory wives submitting to humiliating photo calls as the press revealed details of their husband's errant behaviour. These women often looked dazed and hurt, so much so that it was painful to observe them, but they played by the rules and remained silent.

Mrs Hamilton came out fighting. She believes her husband has been unfairly treated and has never been afraid to say so, defending him with humour and revealing an unexpected ability to laugh at herself. (Any woman who agrees to appear on the violently misogynist Have I Got News For You? deserves, in my view, a night out with the Hollywood star of her choice.)

Mrs Hamilton has been the target of a scandalous onslaught of stereotypes and innuendo. She has been portrayed as Lady Macbeth, stiffening the resolve of her vacillating husband; every detail of their life together, including the fact that they do not have children, has been used against her. This is a tired old narrative in which any act of self-assertion by a woman, especially one is who not young, beautiful or a member of the Spice Girls, is regarded as emasculating. The possibility that Mrs Hamilton is a brave woman, with a genuine and justified sense of grievance, is too awful for many journalists to contemplate.

WHO would have thought that holding hands with Baby or Posh would save the monarchy? Correct me if I've got this wrong, but only a matter of weeks ago I was reading endless commentaries to the effect that the House of Windsor was doomed, unable to rise to the occasion of Princess Diana's death and so on. Its best hope of survival was to skip a generation and put the saintly Diana's son on the throne in place of his father.

Charles, by common consent, had lost the plot, He was out of touch with the Zeitgeist, unable to create a rapport with the British people, a hopeless father. Even cynics like myself believed he faced a hard slog if he was ever going to re-establish his reputation. But we were wrong. All the Prince needed to do was take part in a gruesome publicity stunt with his younger son, President Mandela of South Africa, and a breathtakingly untalented British pop group. To quote an old song, what a difference a day makes - and what short memories we have when it comes to famous people.

I WON'T bore you with bulletins about the state of my ankle, broken or otherwise, but I did manage to hobble as far as a friend's car so he could take me to see LA Confidential. The bit I liked best is when Kim Basinger, playing a call girl, is taken into protective custody by the LAPD. "Book her in as Joan Smith," a detective growls. I've never been arrested, but if ever I am perhaps I should give my name as Kim Bas- inger, and see if the cops get the joke.