Bruce Anderson: The Hamiltons are greedy and vulgar - but not villains

'It is not even clear whether Neil Hamilton was guilty of receiving brown envelopes from Fayed'
Click to follow

Neil and Christine Hamilton were once invited to Taiwan by British Airways, back in the days when Lord King was Chairman. The Hamiltons flew first class, naturally, and BA took care of all the bills, which is how they like to travel. Towards the end of their stay, they asked if they could come back via Hong Kong; the airline was happy to agree. They then asked if British Airways would pay their Hong Kong hotel bill; British Airways declined that kind offer.

No sooner had the Hamiltons arrived in Hong Kong than Neil Hamilton phoned John King's office. Christine Hamilton had contracted food poisoning during the flight from Taiwan. They would now have to prolong their stay in Hong Kong, and in the circumstances, British Airways would surely wish to cover their hotel bill.

British Airways had other plans. At that time, John King's chief of staff was David Burnside, now a Unionist MP. Burnside, a tough Ulsterman, was unamused by the Hamiltons' tricks. He immediately phoned Hamilton, and told him that Lord King would be appalled when he heard what had happened to Christine Hamilton. BA hated the thought of any passenger catching food poisoning on any of its flights, let alone in first class.

The matter would have to be investigated. Fortunately, one of the world's leading experts on food poisoning worked in Hong Kong, and was a consultant to BA. He would be straight round to examine Christine Hamilton. But even before he reached the hotel, she had made a remarkable recovery. There was no further mention of hotel bills.

The Hamiltons are vulgar and greedy. They are a taste-free zone. But they are petty sleaze-mongers, not arch-villains. When it comes to blagging air tickets or free dinners, they have plenty of form, but rapists? Never.

The latest allegations against them are already falling apart, and should never have been taken seriously. If these absurd charges had been levelled at anyone except the Hamiltons, one suspects that the natural scepticism of the police would have come into play. Questioning Neil and Christine Hamilton about an alleged rape is like pulling in the local shoplifters every time there is a brutal homicide. Can the police be charged with wasting police time?

Apropos of villainy, it is not even clear whether Neil Hamilton was guilty of the original offence which ended his political career: receiving brown envelope subventions from Mohamed Al Fayed. The circumstantial evidence is strong. We know that there were brown envelopes going; a former Tory MP, Tim Smith, admitted that he took one. We also know that Hamilton was an associate of Fayed's, who was clearly trying to build up a client-list of Tory MPs.

Moreover, it is easy to imagine how Hamilton would have justified the brown envelopes to himself (not that self-justification would ever have been much of a problem for him where cash was involved). "I am the most brilliant man of my generation,'' he would have said, "just as Benjamin Disraeli was of his. Disraeli had no money, but was subsidised by the Duke of Portland and the Rothschilds, who were hugely rich. I am receiving a much smaller subsidy from my friend Fayed, who acknowledges my genius and who is also hugely rich. What could be wrong with that?''

Latin may have been virtually banished from the courtrooms, but the police still use the term MO when referring to a rogue's known habits, though few constables now realise that it is short for modus operandi. In the Hamilton/Fayed/brown envelopes case, the MO would appear to be characteristic of both parties. Even so, there are two problems.

The first is Hamilton's vanity. The same vanity which would have led him to trouser the brown envelopes as no more than his due would also have led him to boast about them. At the time, one Tory whip said to me: "I don't think that Hamilton would have taken brown envelopes. If he had, we would have known, because he would have told everyone all about it''.

The second is Hamilton's imprudence. A low and cunning fellow who was a regular beneficiary of brown envelopes would have taken the trouble to conceal the fact. He would either have squirreled away the money in secret bank accounts, or used it for one-off purchases: paintings, good wine, foreign weekends – nothing that would disrupt the ordinary routine of domestic expenditure.

But Hamilton is not cunning. If he had been given a brown envelope, he would immediately have carved himself out a thick wad of dosh and shoved it in his wallet. For the next couple of weeks, his plastic would have gone to sleep. So it should have been easy to trace the impact of the brown envelopes on his credit cards and hole-in-the-wall cards; all the evidence would be on file.

It is, it has been examined – and there is no such impact. There is no sign of any falling away of plastic use after the days on which Hamilton is supposed to have received Fayed's brown-enveloped shilling. When it came to Fayed's supposed temptations, Hamilton certainly did have motive, means and opportunity. This does not mean that he committed the offence.

Even if he did, there is one powerful plea in mitigation. When Hamilton was made a minister at the DTI, Fayed was delighted. He now had a friend in a crucial ministry, and brown envelopes or not, there had been a lavish week at the Ritz to build up a debt of gratitude.

Fayed promptly wrote to congratulate Hamilton on his appointment, but the reply came as a rude shock. Hamilton thanked him for his good wishes and his friendship, but went on to say that because of their friendship, he would have to stand aside from any disputes involving Fayed which came within the DTI's purview; other ministers would have to deal with them.

That is not why Fayed cultivated politicians; he did not expect that when they became important and were in a position to exercise influence, they would promptly stand aside. It had never occurred to Hamilton to do other than observe the ministerial code of ethics. That is why Fayed decided to destroy him.

There is a lot of competition, but throughout a chequered career, Hamilton has always managed to be his own worst enemy. He is a silly fellow, who brought discredit on a decent prime minister, John Major, who tried to protect him long after more ruthless premiers would have swept him aside. In the run up to the 1997 election, Hamilton's antics also ensured that much better men than he lost seats.

None of these antics deserves a life-long persecution. For all his superficial qualities, Hamilton should never have been allowed to become a Tory MP, and the party should ensure that, in future, its selection processes weed out such plausible charlatans. But he is out of politics, never to return. He and his wife are now employing their considerable resources of ingenuity to earn some sort of a living. They should be allowed to do so, without the police arresting them every time some crank or obsessive makes a ludicrous allegation against them.