The voters of Tatton can now judge

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The Independent Online
Suppose that Neil Hamilton, supported by his local Conservative association, does not yield to pressure to retire and actually fights the general election in the Tatton constituency. And suppose that the Labour and the Liberal Democratic candidates really do withdraw in favour of a single, independent, anti-sleaze candidate, as they promise to do. Can we imagine what such an election would be like?

Mr Hamilton's first instinct, I assume, would be to try to conduct a normal campaign. He would stand pat on the Conservative manifesto, he would extol the Government's economic success and he would demonstrate the virtues of Tory policies for law and order, education, Europe and so on. He would say that the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates had stood down precisely because they feared debating such issues.

I cannot believe that such an approach would carry Mr Hamilton very far. The electors of Tatton can learn as much as they wish to know about these matters through the national media. Their response to Mr Hamilton would surely be "Yes, but ...", and so he would straightaway lose the first skirmish and be forced to fight on the ground his enemies had chosen.

Mr Hamilton would then, I imagine, continue with his tactic of complaining about the way in which his evidence to Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, had been presented by The Guardian. He would repeatedly state that The Guardian's reports were "selective and were manipulated to show my guilt", and that the transcripts of Mohamed Al Fayed's evidence indicated that he was "motivated by hatred for me and revealed that there is no independent corroboration for his allegations".

He would rail at trial by newspapers and call in evidence the entrapment of fellow Tory MP Piers Merchant by a 17-year-old night club hostess, financed by The Sun. Mr Hamilton would position himself as the victim of injustice calling for impartial treatment.

But would an appeal for fair play work? After all, it is commonplace that when serious accusations are made, the person concerned may have to stand aside. In the case of criminal charges, the accused may have to await trial in prison; and where professional misconduct is alleged, the person concerned is usually suspended from his or her duties while an investigation is carried out. Moreover, Mr Hamilton has taken steps to correct the record. In the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, he published excerpts from the evidence given to Sir Gordon Downey by his chief accuser, Mr Fayed, which he believed were favourable to his cause. Two leaks may not make a right, but again I fancy the electors of Tatton will respond to Mr Hamilton: "Yes, but...."

Pretty quickly, therefore, Mr Hamilton would find that the election campaign in Tatton would focus on the transcripts of his and Mr Fayed's evidence to the Downey inquiry.

Where would an anti-sleaze candidate lay most emphasis? Probably not (repeat, not) on the most lurid aspect of the alleged transactions between Mr Hamilton and Mr Fayed: whether or not cash was passed in envelopes stuffed with pounds 50 notes. Mr Hamilton says that Mr Fayed and three aides are lying when they say this. The electors of Tatton would not know whom to believe.

Instead, an anti-sleaze candidate should concentrate on two, simple charges - that the Tatton MP had lied to Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and that he had engaged in a fraud at the expense of the Inland Revenue. Either one is so devastating, if true, that everything else could be ignored. Neither requires the evidence of Mr Fayed. On the question of the lie, we have The Guardian's transcript of Mr Hamilton's evidence to Sir Gordon and Mr Hamilton's letter to The Times last Saturday, in which he adds a statement he made that The Guardian omitted.

A Cabinet Office memo notes that Mr Hamilton has given Mr Heseltine "an absolute assurance that he had no financial relationship with Mr Greer [the political lobbyist] and the President of the Board of Trade [at the time, Mr Heseltine] has accepted this".

Counsel put to Mr Hamilton that he did have such a financial relationship. Mr Hamilton replied: "I did not mention the commission payments when I spoke to Mr Heseltine ... politics is a rough game ... I knew that if there were to be another cause for adverse media comment against me ... it could be used as a very big stick with which to beat me and to cause my resignation to take place." What did The Guardian miss out? Mr Hamilton's further statement that he was "satisfied in my own mind that there was no deliberate misleading of" Mr Heseltine.

So there we have it: Mr Hamilton misled the Deputy Prime Minister, but not "deliberately". He was either a fool or a liar.

As to whether a tax fraud was committed, The Guardian extracts indicate that the MP's tax return for 1988-89 showed as an expense (ie an offset) the cost of a flight (pounds 1,430) which in fact had been paid not by him but by Mr Greer. What was Mr Hamilton's response? Perhaps his weakest in the whole saga: "my accountant ... prepares my tax return". Yes, but the taxpayer must sign the tax return, stating that the "information I have given is correct and complete to the best of my knowledge and belief". Mr Hamilton knows how solemn is this undertaking; he trained as a barrister specialising in tax.

In my picture of the Tatton election, with an anti-sleaze candidate in the field against the sitting MP, the issue of whether bribes were taken to represent certain people in Parliament and in their dealings with government would remain in the background. That question could wait until publication of the full Downey report and deliberation by the new House of Commons. The anti-sleaze candidate would not seek to usurp that process, nor wish to appear as if he or she were the candidate of Mr Fayed. Instead, equally crucial questions relating to the honesty of Mr Hamilton would be tackled head-on: is he a liar? is he a fraud?