Scotland had the Macbeths and Romania had the Ceausescus. But while Tony and Cherie 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 the 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 1 May 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.
There is, though, 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 of sacrificial lambs. But it was the nature of the altar on which they were sacrificed which, as a satirist, really interested me. Shortly after losing his seat, 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 laughter.
‘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 Purple Homicide, John Sweeney’s 1998 book about the Tatton election. 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.’
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 three 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 overfriendly 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, 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 the bile that was heaped on him was out of proportion to what he was alleged to have done. 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 battle-axe by the media through no real fault of her own — beyond loyalty — she then played the hand she’d been dealt, and won. 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 you to Messalina and Lady Macbeth!
‘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.’
This 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 till I get you in a dark alley!’
To be honest I can’t think of anything nicer.