Neil and Christine Hamilton assure me that they are not really obsessed with their battle to clear their name - but I do not believe them. From the moment I enter their lovely home in deepest Cheshire, they talk of little else. This goes on for three hours without a break.
At one point, as Neil hammers home yet another point that he believes everyone else has got wrong, I cannot stop myself from letting out a strangled "Arghhhh!" This gets Christine's attention. "He's not really aggressive," she says. "I don't educate you in the spirit of criticism," says Neil. "It's just that it's annoying for us to hear YET again all of this," she says. "And when I've got a journalist captive, I have to exploit the opportunity," he adds.
There didn't seem a lot of point in small talk as I entered the Old Rectory in Nether Alderley. The hall is huge, and my immediate reaction was: "How can they afford this?" They claim they cannot at the moment and that they lie awake at night worrying about how to pay the bills. The hall is bordering on the weird, with its cardboard cut-out of Mrs Thatcher at the door and museum cases stuffed with taxidermy projects. One of the couches is draped in a tiger skin, complete with head. "Oh, that was a present from Neil," says Christine. She picks up a golliwog. "I'm sure this is politically incorrect."
So are they, of course. Neil Hamilton is the former Conservative Minister for Corporate Affairs who resigned over the cash-for-questions scandal in 1994. It was also revealed that he hadn't declared a stay at the Paris Ritz in 1987 as a guest of Mohammed Al Fayed. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, found that he had taken cash from Fayed, and the parliamentary standards committee gave its backing to this finding.
In 1996, Hamilton sued The Guardian newspaper for libel but withdrew at the last moment, pleading a lack of funds. In the election last May, he lost what had been the safe Tory seat of Tatton to the anti-sleaze candidate, Martin Bell. Since then, the Hamiltons have been regulars on the media circuit. He insists he is innocent and attacks a system in which he was presumed guilty without a proper trial. He is about to get that soon, as he is suing Al Fayed for libel. The case is being paid for via a fund set up by an old friend, Lord Harris of High Cross.
Gradually, it is dawning on everyone that the Hamiltons are simply refusing to go away. "I'm sure they thought I was dead meat and therefore could be wholly discounted. I'm a testament to the powers of Viagra!" says Neil. "Oh, really?" says Christine. "Then I began the fightback!" says Neil, "and managed to push the lid off the coffin and to sit up straight."
They really do talk like this, in what at times almost amounts to a private language. Journalists are reptiles, for instance, and as such, are also paranoid and deranged. They are scathing about The Guardian, which they refer to as "the paranoid and deranged of Farringdon Road". Al Fayed is the "lying Egyptian", and much worse. But who, I wonder, was this Sir Gormless Dopey they refer to? This turns out to be Sir Gordon Downey. "Otherwise known as Tosspot!" cries Christine. "And you can print both of those!"
But aren't Neil and Christine hate figures themselves? "Well, we were certainly pariahs, if not hate figures," says Neil. "Less now than we used to be," says Christine. They believe that there has been a "sea change" in the attitude of the man-on-the-street.
I say that most of the people I talked to before the interview referred to Neil as a sleazeball. They both sit up straight. "Yes, of course I have that reputation, and it's not tolerable," says Neil. "Let's face it, I have been completely destroyed as a public figure. And professionally, too."
And as a person? "Of course I have suffered. You mustn't draw the conclusion that I haven't suffered just because I am burning with indignation and determination to right a wrong. The fact that I am able to do it doesn't mean I am sublimating it or that it didn't happen. But we have to surmount it. Yes, I am angry and bitter. I am not twisted. We are in our fifth year of this. I am going to be 50 next birthday. We've been hunted. We've gone right down to the pit of hell, and now we are rising again."
Everyone wanted to know how they could afford to live in this house, I tell them, not to mention have a place in London as well. The question hung in the air for a moment.
Neil: That is a complete misconception. We both lost our incomes. We now survive in the very precarious world of freelance journalism.
Me: But you cannot be making that much money.
Neil: We are not making ends meet at the moment because we can't meet all our expenses. We had my settlement from the House of Commons. In the year after that, we were very much in demand as professional objects of curiosity. We were criticised for demanding fees for this, but how else were we to earn our living? People don't know what our asset position is, how big our mortgage is ... so they have no factual basis upon which to draw any conclusions whatsoever. Not that that stops them...
Me: Well, you live the kind of life that people...
Neil: How do they know what sort of life we lead?
Christine: They don't know, for instance, how we have pared our expenses down. They don't know that we have cancelled every single newspaper.
Neil: The Spectator and Living Marxism are the only publications I subscribe to. You think I'm joking, but it's true!
Christine: I understand people thinking that because we are, after all, living in an enormous house. But we sat down after the election and said: right, no income, we are going to cut our spending. What is essential? The mortgage, the milk bill, the gas bill, the this, the that. Everything else: out. I haven't been on a woman's spend since the election. I've bought the odd pair of tights, because you have to. Birthday cards! I don't buy them any more. I recycle. Cut them up, buy some coloured card...
Me: Did it ever occur to you to go and get a job?
Neil: It's occurred to me lots of times. There are lots of jobs I'd like but they are not on offer because I'm regarded as Mr Sleaze. The fact of the matter is that until I destroy Al Fayed and his allegations, I am effectively unemployable except in the media. It is the only profession that isn't bothered in the slightest about stains on your character.
The media seems to take up a huge amount of their time. Finding a time to meet requires cross-checking with the Radio Times listings, as Christine is on that show, Neil on another. Then, of course, Neil has to go to Wales to do something on gardening for the Daily Telegraph. There was a trip to America to speak at a conference. This week, they were off to Manchester to appear on some talk show with the Hollywood star, George Hamilton. Christine's Book of British Battleaxes is just out in paperback. She asks whether I've read it. I note that she is much in demand. "Yes, Christine is much more media-genic," says Neil. She smiles. "I get some lovely fan mail from people. Apparently, I am a gay icon at the moment, which is quite nice."
"Like Barbara Cartland," Neil adds.
Well, not quite, but the similarities are growing. It seems that Christine is writing a novel. Why is this? Had she always wanted to be a novelist?
Christine: Heavens, no! I've been 100 per cent occupied with Neil.
Me: But why then?
Christine. Well, the Battleaxes was Neil's idea. He said I must capitalise on this image that I've got.
Neil: I'm the marketing man. Oh yes. Why do you think we've had such a successful sales pitch so far?
Christine: We were in the position of being Dinkies - double income, no kids - and suddenly we were Ninkies. So I did the Battleaxes. What was your question?
Me: Isn't it painful to write a novel?
Christine: No, it's fun! I'm basing it on the experiences of a friend of mine. It's sort of the life and loves of a young man between Cambridge and his mid-50s.
Neil: I'm writing a novel, too. It's going to be called The Media Assassins. I'm not kidding.
Christine: Mine's going to have more sex in it.
Neil: She knows more about it than I do.
Christine: It's much more fun on a Monday morning to be writing a sex scene than going to the House of Commons.
Neil: I think, on the whole, women's imaginations are more lurid. Mine is going to be about the inter-connecting circles of business, media and politics. I've decided on the title, and that will determine the nature of the book. We can get our own back on the gargoyles of Farringdon Road in some way.
Christine: Neil is also writing a book about what's happened.
Neil: It won't be done until after the Al Fayed case is done. But yes, I'm going to write my story.
The Hamiltons truly believe that they are innocent victims. They do not even regret staying at the Ritz. "I can't regret doing something that was perfectly legitimate," says Neil. But people do paint you as someone who loves a freebie, I say. "We behaved like journalists, you are quite right!" he says. But, of course, they were not journalists but an MP and his secretary. They had gone to the Paris Ritz in order to visit the Windsor villa, which Al Fayed had just taken over. They say that they thought it would take a day, but in the end they were there for five.
They now believe that they were kept there
deliberately. So was it a conspiracy? "Well, we do know that Al Fayed lays traps for people," says Neil.
This is just a taste of the talk around the kitchen table at the Old Rectory. It is fascinating, in an anorak sort of way. At some point, you just want to yell: Free the Tatton Two and Free Us All! I say this because, make no mistake, this couple is not going away. Neil Hamilton is furious and he has gone too far down his tunnel of furiousness to even think that there is another option.
At one point, he gives me a little clue as to what makes him maddest of all. And that seems to be Sir Gordon Downey. "He's a total flop in his semi non-job. Given one important responsibility, he completely cocked it up in my case. He is the sort of civil servant who would only obey orders..." He is ranting now. I ask him if he hates Sir Gordon. "He's a completely incurious bureaucrat, the kind who kept Nazi..." So, I ask, do you hate him? "Well, yes, I think I do, actually."
The future is another country here, and when I ask where they envision themselves being in five years' time, there is a moment of silence. "It is impossible to say. It really is. I want to vindicate myself. I want to have a satisfying career," says Neil. "I want to be intellectually satisfied by what I'm doing. I want to be successful in some other career, if not politics." Does he want to be an MP again? "The most dramatic way of vindicating myself would be to return in triumph to the House of Commons. That begs the question: is it worth returning to?"
For the time being, though, there is the media. Both of them think it would be fantastic if one of them had a regular column "in a newspaper that pays", or perhaps even their own talk show.
Christine: I don't want people to think we are obsessed with money.
Neil: We are obsessed with keeping a roof over our head.
Christine: We are obsessed with paying the bills.
Neil: And we'd like to be able to have a lifestyle again. We'd like to be able to go to the opera. We'd like to be able to travel for pleasure, and do the things that normal people do.
Me: But if you had your own show, then you'd be a media couple.
Christine: What's wrong with that?
Me: You'd still be a professional object of curiosity.
Neil: You wouldn't, because you are on the other side of the mike. You decide the format and so you are driving the thing. And that is, qualitatively, very different from being interviewed. We are both communicators. I am an ace bullshitter. I've spent my whole life doing little else.
Christine (smiling): Most politicians are.
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