The nation has heard only one side in the Battle of the Liars

Mohamed al-fayed
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Neil Hamilton may be a liar. His sense of bathos - and his lack of political good taste - may have been exposed by his ranking himself alongside the miscarriages of justice of the Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four. (Free the Tatton Two). His sheer brass neck may have been evidenced by his pronouncement that he might stand in the Paisley South by-election as an anti-corruption candidate. And before the Parliamentary Privileges Committee yesterday he may have moved rather too hurriedly over some questions - his tax evasion, his lying to the then deputy prime minister or his failure to declare his free stays at the Ritz.

But he made a formidable case on one point. That his chief accuser in this welter of parliamentary sleaze - Mohamed al-Fayed - may be no more reliable a witness than the disgraced ex-minister himself.

One of the great oddities about the whole cash-for-questions affair has been the ease with which the owner of Harrods has escaped opprobrium for his self-confessed attempts to bribe Members of Parliament. In a way that is particularly odd. The Egyptian tycoon may have achieved great wealth - he owns a Park Lane penthouse, a castle in Scotland, chalet in Gstaad, a villa and luxury yacht in St Tropez and the former Parisian home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In the time-honoured tradition of the arriviste he has used his money to buy himself into the heart of several great (or once great) institutions - Britain's most famous shop, Punch magazine, an al-Fayed tartan and a football club which now has the nation's most famous football manager Kevin Keegan at its helm. He has even tried to buy a newspaper (with failed bids for Today, the Daily Express and The Observer.) But all his wealth could not buy him what he most craves - the approval of the British establishment.

Hamilton's allegations yesterday can have done nothing to rectify all this. The story he told of how al-Fayed, using plastic gloves from the Harrods' food hall, supposedly rifled through the contents of safety deposit boxes which he had instructed his staff to illegally open, was only the most vivid in a catalogue of claims made under the shield of parliamentary privilege by the dislodged MP.

The Harrods' boss "has a well-known record of deceit and invention," Hamilton said, insisting that the cash-in-brown-envelopes stories were lies to discredit him for refusing to bend ministerial rules to Mr al- Fayed's advantage. "There is overwhelming evidence that he invents wild allegations and also pursues ruthless vendettas." Even Sir Gordon Downey, the author of the parliamentary report which fingered Hamilton, accepts, Hamilton told the committee, that Mr al-Fayed is an inveterate liar.

The root of all this lies in the Department of Trade report on the al- Fayed's takeover of Harrods in the 1980s which concluded that Mohamed and his brother Ali had lied to the City, the Press, to the DTI, and even their own advisors about the sources of their wealth. The techniques they employed then were exactly those used against Hamilton, the former MP claimed yesterday. Throughout both stories "are lies and inconsistencies and changes - allegations which once they are disproved, are just put on one side and forgotten and new ones take their place."

Tiny Rowland, their bitter rival in the fight for Harrods, called the al-Fayeds "phoney pharaohs" and claimed their money was that of the Sultan of Brunei. Certainly Mohamed Fayed (there was no aristocratic "al-" then) began in modest circumstances in his native Alexandria which he later made effort to disguise. In early interviews he describe a childhood of Oxbridge-educated tutors, an English nanny and crumpets for tea, though his father was a primary school teacher and they lived in a modest flat.

But then in 1953 he was taken on by the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, whose sister he later married. By the 1960s al-Fayed and his brothers owned construction businesses in Egypt, and were handling a harbour works and oil refinery projects for Haiti's dictator Papa Doc Duvalier; the DTI report said he departed with a large amount of Haitian cash.

It was in the mid-Seventies that al-Fayed bought into the British construction firm Costain and joined the board of Tiny Rowland's Lonrho. It was then that Rowland chose Fayed to warehouse his 30 per cent stake in the then owners of Harrods, the House of Fraser, to avoid monopolies investigation. A feud between the two erstwhile friends developed when they joined battle for control of the store which each wanted to add respectability to their portfolios.

But respectability eluded al-Fayed. It was not simply that the top people's store was transformed into a temple to a new vulgarity. Despite his best endeavours he could not gain the affirmation he desired. He did try. When Tory ministers came to him for help in 1985 during a sterling crisis, when the Sultan of Brunei was threatening to move billions out of sterling, al-Fayed persuaded the Sultan to stop the transfer. And he stepped in again when the Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshall Lord Bramall, asked for help in stopping the Sultan from switching pounds 500m in defence contracts to non-British firms.

Yet despite this, and large donations to prominent charities like the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Britain's 14th richest man when he applied for British citizenship was refused on the grounds that he was not "of good character". Other schemes failed too. He was unable to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to over-turn the DTI report. And a plan for a pounds 2bn flotation of Harrods on the stock market came to naught.

It must have seemed sweet when the divorced Princess of Wales began a relationship with his son, Dodi. There were rumours of an engagement, even a pregnancy. It seemed that the outsider with the loud shirts with clashing clip-on ties, and a constant supply of earthy expletives might ironically become an in-law of the future King of the country which refused him a passport.

Yet even the tragedy of the couple's death was to bring further snubs. His claim to have the last words of the dying princess was, when he passed them on to the Spencer family, dismissed as ludicrous in a reminder of what Neil Hamilton yesterday branded as "Mr Fayed's innate capacity for invention".

Given all this, Hamilton asked, why has Sir Gordon Downey so readily believed the testimony of this man? Hamilton may not have convinced all with his protestations of innocence on the large issues and his sidelong expression of regret at the "embarrassment" of his stay in the Ritz. But the catalogue of questions he has raised over the behaviour of Mr al-Fayed and his employees are ones which it might be hoped the privilege committee would like to see the billionaire answer. And not through the mouth of his oleaginous PR man Michael Cole, but in person, on oath and subject to cross-examination.