Scotland had the Macbeths and Romania had the Ceausescus. But while Tony
and Cheri made a pretty good stab at it, in the annals of notoriety in British
politics no husband and wife team can compare to the Hamiltons. Or at least it
seemed like that in 1997, when allegations about cash for questions in brown
envelopes catapulted Neil Hamilton, the relatively obscure MP for Tatton, into
the eye of the storm about to overwhelm John Major’s government. The
decision by former BBC correspondent Martin Bell, in his white suit, to stand
as an "Anti-Sleaze" candidate in Tatton drove Hamilton’s wife Christine to
confront him during a press-conference on Knutsford Heath, hurling her into
the maelstrom as well, and they duly enjoyed their 15 minutes of infamy.
However, as I found out when I arranged to meet and draw them both
over lunch at the Gay Hussar Hungarian restaurant in Soho last month, it’s
turned out to be a long 15 minutes. It’s also been pretty harrowing. From
representing the third safest Tory seat in the country, after May 1st 1997
Hamilton was not just unemployed but also, as he conceded when he told me
he was "damaged goods", unemployable too. Then there was his failed libel
action against Mohammed Al Fayed, his subsequent bankruptcy when he
couldn’t meet his legal fees and, probably worst of all, false accusations of
rape which surfaced while the Hamiltons were making a film for the BBC
with Louis Theroux.
However, there’s an added dimension to the Hamiltons’ travails.
Irrespective of whether they deserved it or not, they came to symbolise a
worn-out, failing and increasingly squalid government, to the point where they
took on the role not just of scapegoats, but also as sacrificial lambs. But it was
the nature of the altar on which they were sacrificed which, as a satirist, really
interested me. Shortly after being beaten by Bell at Tatton, Hamilton and his
wife appeared on "Have I Got News For You"and at the end of the show
Angus Deayton handed them their appearance fees in brown envelopes. Thus
was both a political and personal disaster compounded by what had every
appearance of being an almost ritualised level of humiliation, as if our
collective bloodlust wouldn’t be sated until they’d bent the knee and kissed
the rod of Satire, in a warped, showbiz variant on a Stalinist Show Trial. So I
wondered, having volunteered themselves to become a National Joke, why in
God’s name had they done it.
"Look, darling," Christine Hamilton glowered as she settled herself on
the banquet opposite me in the Gay Hussar, next to Neil in his bow tie, and
having kissed me on both cheeks on arrival (even though we’d never met
before), "we were broke. We were both 50, neither of us had a job or any
income, and they paid us a thousand pounds each."
Even so, and even though it ultimately paid off, wasn’t it an incredibly
risky thing to do? Christine insisted that they’d had no real option, so I asked
how it felt to be the object of so much vitriol, made worse through sneering
"Actually we both enjoyed the show. I even thought the brown
envelopes bit was rather funny, although Neil didn’t. I’ve been back on the
programme, though for some reason or other they won’t let me host it. To be
honest, I felt rather guilty after I was on another time and Angus had made
some crack about Neil and I said that at least my husband had never taken
cocaine and used call girls, and after that apparently Paul Merton and Ian
Hislop said that Angus really had to go. I feel I should have apologised to him
for bringing that to a head."
If Christine felt guilty, now it was my turn to fess up. I wanted to find
out how they’d felt about being portrayed so relentlessly and mercilessly in
cartoons, not least of all because I was caricaturing them both now.
"Watch it," Christine said. "I’ve been known to tear pages out of
sketchbooks. I mean, after that awful thing that Peter Brookes did!"
All in all, it seemed wise at this point to admit to my role as illustrator
in John Sweeney’s 1998 book about the Tatton election, "Purple Homicide".
Christine and Neil leaned forward intently. "Oh really?" Christine said, her
eyes widening with interest, and smiling rather beautifully. "We haven’t
bothered to read that one," Neil added, also smiling. "Anyway," Christine
continued, "we’ve kissed and made up with Sweeney. He’s even been to our
flat, hasn’t he, darling?" Neil confirmed this, so I asked if there was anyone
they hadn’t kissed and made up with?
"Not Bell. Definitely not Bell, the self-righteous, pompous prig. I
mean, saying meeting me was worse than anything he’d ever encountered in
Bosnia! What a wimp!"
"Anyway," Neil added, "he’s got rather too portly to kiss these days."
"Oh yes! He’s enormous. But we haven’t forgiven Al Fayed either,
although everyone now realises that he’s completely mad!"
This was interesting. Although Neil and Christine Hamilton had been
ground down by the tragic millstones, their assailants hadn’t fared that well
either (the woman who falsely accused them of rape went down for 3 years for
perverting the course of justice). I supposed that this was some kind of
vindication, although Christine responded by saying that you just had to get on
with things, which is what they’d done.
On her official website, Christine writes "I am thrilled to have left the
artificial world of boring old politics for the madcap fun world of the media
and entertainment." I tried pursuing this idea of redemption through showbiz -
which includes the catharsis of Have I Got News For You. "What is this?"
Christine cried, her eyes widening in disbelief at my obvious pseudery, "The
Psychiatrist’s Chair?". As far as she’s concerned, they’ve just been lucky to be
able to move on and have fun. They repeated, in unison, their pitch that they’ll
consider doing anything that’s "legal, honest and faintly decent", which
includes pantos, Christine’s appearance on "I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of
Here!" and their annual shows on the Edinburgh fringe. "None of it’s planned!
We just make it up as we go along!"
The Hamiltons have certainly undergone a remarkable rehabilitation,
from National Jokes almost to National Treasures. You could probably
describe this more accurately as an extraordinary gift for simple survival, so I
suggested that it was all was down to Christine’s natural propensity to go at
life like a bull at a gate. She cut across me, leaning over the table. "No no no,
I’m not a bull at a gate. I’m more like an over friendly labrador who just
bounds up to people and starts licking them. I just can’t help it."
I got the impression that Neil relishes the showbiz life less than his
wife. He was once a serious politician, albeit with some pretty unsavoury
views and whose behaviour may or may not have contributed to his own
political destruction. Either way (and though I contributed gleefully to his
harrying) he never started any illegal wars, and what he was alleged to have
done now seems disproportionate to the volume of bile it brought down on his
head, and his wife’s. And yet, like Christine, there’s a fatalism to Neil
Hamilton: he happily admitted that his misfortune was to provide the kind of
scapegoat the political Zeitgeist demanded at the time.
Not that I particularly liked him. There’s still too much of the debating
society smart arse about him, endlessly spouting one liners of varying levels
of wittiness ("Oh shut up, Neil!"). But that’s hardly a crime, and anyway, by
now I was beginning to fall helplessly in love with his wife. Although dubbed
a battleaxe by the media through no real fault of her own - beyond loyalty -
she then played the hand she’d been dealt, and won through. So unless she’s
the most brilliantly duplicitous media manipulator in history, which I doubt,
she may really be the pussycat she nervously admits to being on her website.
It was now time to show them my drawing. Neil, maintaining the
politician’s instinctive impermeability to insult, chuckled and signed it with a
throwaway line about having a sense of humour. Christine, however, shut up
completely, for more or less the first time during the interview. She frowned.
She twisted her mouth into an uneasy moue. "But my jacket isn’t the right
colour... this earring is a cat, and it doesn’t look like that..." Then she asked
Neil, several times, what she should write.
In fact, she agonised for a full 15 minutes over what was, for me, a
remarkably flattering portrait. While she was prevaricating, I asked once again
what it was like to have been demonised to the extent she had been.
"I now realise that that confrontation on Knutsford Heath was the
making of me."
Yes yes yes, but people were comparing her to Messalina and Lady
"Well, to be honest, when I saw myself on television afterwards and
saw how dreadful I looked I cried and cried."
So what was it like to see yourself in all those cartoons?
"Oh, Neil wouldn’t let me see them."
Which wasn’t just kind, but also rather admirable. My estimation of
Neil Hamilton rising considerably, Christine finally, with a yelp, found her
form of words to write on the cartoon: "Just you wait til I get you in a dark
To be honest I can’t think of anything nicer.