Mohamed al-Fayed leaves UK 'with a heavy heart' (and best wishes from the Hamiltons)

By Andy McSmith,James Morrison
Sunday 30 March 2003 02:00

"Here's to those who wish us well, here's to those who can go to hell – or Switzerland."

With these words, Christine Hamilton celebrated her husband's late victory in the long feud with the millionaire Mohamed al-Fayed – a feud that helped bring down the last Conservative government and has now caused the apparent winner to flee the country.

Mr Fayed announced on Friday night that he is going into self-imposed exile in Switzerland, after the revelation, which emerged at the Hamilton libel trial, that he had access to £100,000 a week in ready cash – thus destroying a tidy tax arrangement with the Inland Revenue.

His departure was greeted with predictable glee by Neil Hamilton, the former Tory minister who was ruined politically and financially by Mr Fayed.

"I seem to have hit him amidships with an Exocet," he crowed. "I have every sympathy for the Swiss. That's probably the kindest comment I can make."

Mr Fayed's alleged persecutors at the Inland Revenue seemed surprised that their quarry had flown. A spokesman said yesterday: "We only learnt about it from a third party. We think it's a lot more than Inland Revenue that has led to it."

Egyptian by birth, the 70-year-old businessman has lived in Britain for more than 35 years. He first came to public attention during a ferocious court battle with the chairman of Lonrho, Tiny Rowland, over the ownership of Harrods. Later, he became the owner of Fulham Football Club. He was the father of Dodi Fayed, killed in the same car crash as his lover Diana, Princess of Wales.

Others were kinder than the Hamiltons about him at his time of distress. Max Clifford, Mr Fayed's publicist, said: "He'll be missed by people who go to Harrods, because he was always seen, he was always around, meeting and greeting. Fulham football fans, I think, will miss him as well."

Aldo Zilli, the Italian restaurateur and a close friend of Mr Fayed, said: "He's done so much for this country, but this country didn't like him."

There were mixed feelings at Fulham Football Club, the team whose fortunes Mr Al Fayed has steered as chairman since becoming its biggest shareholder in 1997.

The club's spokeswoman said the first it knew of Mr Fayed's decision was on Friday at 5pm. He has since sent individual letters explaining his move to players and staff.

Mr Fayed lobbied unsuccessfully for years to be granted a British passport. One of those he approached in the 1990s was Neil Hamilton, then a Trade minister in John Major's government.

In his fury when his application for citizenship got nowhere, Mr Fayed accused Mr Hamilton of corruptly accepting gifts of cash and a free stay at the Ritz in Paris.

Mr Hamilton threatened to sue The Guardian, which published his allegations, but because they concerned his status as an MP, the courts said they had no jurisdiction. The Prime Minister, John Major, changed the law to enable Mr Hamilton to sue, but he pulled out before it went to court.

Later, Mr Hamilton sued Mr Fayed for libel, lost and was bankrupted. Afterwards, Mr Hamilton complained to the Inland Revenue, which ended an agreement that set a limit on the tax Mr Fayed paid on his foreign earnings.

Mr Fayed has said in a statement: "The grossly unfair treatment finally convinced me that, for the sake of my family, the time has come to leave. I am leaving with a heavy heart."