Former Tory minister Neil Hamilton talked to James Heartfield about sleaze and 'the death of politics'
'"Wankers of the World Unite!" seems to be Martin Bell's slogan'
'The first time I ever heard the word sleaze was in 1994, from TV reporter John Pienaar.' Neil Hamilton was Corporate Affairs Minister in the Conservative government, before being embroiled in allegations of fraud and corruption - allegations he strenuously denies - that forced him out of office and eventually led to his defeat at the hands of his 'anti-sleaze opponent' Martin Bell in the General Election.
'I saw my role to represent business in government.' It was a role that the Conservatives had created, to make government more responsive to industry. 'My job was a counter-cultural one, to stop the influence of all the single issue pressure groups on the various ministries. I encouraged everyone in business to come to me and let me be their advocate. I suppose I was the voice of a single issue pressure group if you regard industry as a pressure group.'
The truth is that Hamilton was always a dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherite, who enthusiastically supported her programme of pro-market policies. But he says he is not dishonest: he has always been openly right-wing in his opinions. Nor is he a crook - just a Tory. Now, that on its own might be a good enough reason to kick him out, but that was not what happened. Hamilton did not lose one of the safest Tory seats in the country in an open fight against the government's policies. Instead he was deposed as part of a histrionic campaign against sleaze, manufactured by the press and supported by a New Labour Party more comfortable with holier-than-thou sermons than political arguments.
The allegations of sleaze originated from Mohamed Al Fayed, the Harrods-owning Egyptian millionaire. 'Fayed's fantasy is that I've betrayed him, and now he is seeking revenge', says Hamilton. As part of his long-running row with Tiny Rowland, Al Fayed's House of Frasier had engaged the lobbying firm Ian Greer Associates on a retainer of £2300 a month. In particular, Al Fayed was trying to fend off an aggressive investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry. Hamilton knew Ian Greer, and indeed he had, twice, been paid introduction fees by Greer for recommending the lobbying firm to clients - the National Nuclear Company and US Tobacco (ever a sucker for popular causes).
'I helped lobbyists. I was never paid anything for doing anything for lobbying purposes in the House of Commons. Obviously, now I wish I'd had nothing to do with Al Fayed. But at the time I wanted to help him because I thought he had a case.'
Fayed's ire was provoked when Hamilton was made minister and, as Hamilton puts it, 'behaved scrupulously by refusing to have anything to do with areas where I had a personal connection'. It was then that Al Fayed started making allegations to the Guardian newspaper which leapt on the chance of grabbing a Tory scalp. According to Hamilton the Guardian has a 'paranoid obsession that I am the source of all evil. It is psychotic really. [Ex-Guardian editor] Peter Preston was the original psychotic and [David] Henke was his sidekick. As for Alan Rusbridger', the new Guardian editor, 'he is just drunk with his own power'.
Evidence that the Guardian does seem to have an obsessive interest in Hamilton comes in the book Sleaze, an in-house production by top Guardian journalists Ed Vulliamy and David Leigh that is the main source for allegations against Hamilton. Sleaze is a book that gets carried away with itself, even to the point of alleging that Hamilton's voluble and charming wife was 'provided' for him by his Faust-like mentors, Ian Greer and fellow MP Michael Grylls.
'Oh that's just silly', interjects Christine Hamilton in genuine disbelief. 'In any event I met Neil long before I met Ian or Michael, even Guardian journalists could have worked that out.' I am surprised that she has never read the book. 'I've got better things to do', she says. Her husband did read all of the allegations, however, and tried to sue the Guardian for libel but could not carry the costs of the case.
Most damaging for Hamilton were Fayed's stories to the Guardian and the Mail. 'Fayed said Ian Greer paid me to ask questions - it's just not true. Greer's own documentary evidence to the Downey Committee disproves those allegations.' Then Fayed added to his story the allegation that he had had a clerk stuff brown envelopes full of cash for Hamilton to pick up at the reception at House of Frasier. 'Those allegations', insists Hamilton, 'are untrue and constructed in such a way as to be unproveable and untraceable'. If Fayed's original story of Greer paying Hamilton to ask questions was true, then there ought to have been a financial record of money changing hands. The addition of the anonymous and untraceable 'brown envelopes' could have been chosen to facilitate a real fraud, or they could have been chosen to facilitate accusations of fraud.
The Guardian's agenda was revealed in the election, when the paper led the call for an 'independent' candidate to depose Hamilton, a call answered by the veteran BBC war correspondent Martin Bell. 'Bell is a Mandelson construct', says Hamilton. 'Tom Stoddart, Blair's official photographer found Bell and persuaded him to stand.' Stoddart is the husband of the Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey. 'John Prescott came to Tatton to tell the local Labour Party to stand down their candidate.'
Hamilton is preoccupied with Labour's role in stitching him up, but it would be just as true to say that Bell is a media construct. The fantasy of standing above party politics for the 'higher principle' of decency is originally the Guardian's. The paper's intervention into the Tatton poll was part of a wider disdain for the adversarial politics of parliamentary democracy. As far as the radical intelligentsia at the Guardian are concerned mass politics is a Dutch auction in which the lowest common denominator always wins.
The Bell candidacy was an attempt to side-step any political debate in favour of a moralistic and artificial debate about the relative character of the two candidates. '"Wankers of the world unite!" seems to be his slogan', suggests Hamilton. Bell's canvassers were well briefed, and their arguments were all laid out on the Guardian's own election website ('The charges against Neil Hamilton'), which the luckless Hamilton has only just discovered: 'I now see where Martin Bell got all that crap he was spraying round in the election.'
Bell's canvassers were briefed to say that 'he's already been convicted on 12 charges', which is not true. 'To interpret my behaviour as a deliberate fraud, is itself a fraud', he says. On the Guardian's lead the Bell campaign made much of Hamilton's 'already admitted wrongdoings' but on inspection these prove to be utterly trivial. The one 'misdemeanour' that particularly scandalised the contributors to the Guardian's on-line debate was a tax return from years ago in which Hamilton failed to declare a free flight. 'Everything in the tax return was included or left out on my > accountant's advice, as he has testified to the Downey inquiry.' It comes to something when radicals are reduced to finding fault with a Tory minister's tax returns instead of his policies - especially when the critics are journalists who would naturally never accept a free flight to anywhere.
But of course it is the lack of clear political debate between the parties that has elevated the sleaze issue so high on the agenda. The Guardian knew as well as anybody that New Labour had no intention of departing from the government's pro-market policies. Even Neil Hamilton thinks Blair won the election on a 'macho, radical right-wing programme. All that stuff about single mothers! We wouldn't have dared to privatise the welfare state'.
'We have witnessed the death of politics, the emergence of centrist politicians like Major and Blair with no defined political views. I remember early in the last government Major getting us all together and telling us that his biggest passion was the control of inflation. Well, controlling inflation is important but it is not exactly something to get emotional about. Blair is another bloodless creature. Blair and Mandelson...they're just a clique of opportunists, whose only agenda is to be elected and re-elected.'
'My preferred reading matter is the Daily Telegraph and LM these days', he adds.
Hamilton is the first to admit that the 'death of politics' started in his own party. 'All those targets of Mrs Bottomley's. It was absolutely ridiculous. We were telling people what they should and should not eat. I remember one cabinet meeting where we were going round the table looking at our ministries' performances and the transport ministry actually claimed to have helped meet the reduction of suicides target by taking the lead out of petrol! Not that people were attempting suicide any less, you understand, only that they could not gas themselves.'
What Hamilton does not quite grasp is that the moralism of the Martin Bell campaign is precisely what fills the gap when politics is suspended. Instead he puts the rise of the sleaze issue down to the growth of lobbying groups. 'As far as the public is concerned these scandals are of no great consequence. Even the Scott inquiry was hardly about high crimes and misdemeanours. All of these scandals just show that politics is full of human beings. It suits journalists to go on about them and it suited the opposition. But what does Bell think he will be doing after 12 months? What role is there for him? He's not part of any party organisation that will push him to perform.'
The Hamiltons are scathing about Bell's lack of political convictions - 'he will be running out of fences to sit on'. In particular they are angry with him for prevaricating over the Manchester airport protest, where Bell's most decisive intervention was to call for a 'model eviction'.
Surely Neil Hamilton does not support Swampy? 'I sympathise with the protesters' cause - I am totally opposed to the airport expansion - though not their illegality.' Christine Hamilton adds that Swampy and Animal are 'fed, watered and washed by the Tory voters of Tatton'.
If the issue of 'character' really had been the decisive one in Tatton, the Hamiltons, who are much more likeable than the thin-skinned and sanctimonious Martin Bell, would have won hands down. They are both witty - and quite camp - in person, handling their own troubles with a blend of self-deprecating humour and world-weariness. Recently Christine Hamilton was accused of throwing a wobbly in Gloria Hunniford's dressing room over the script of an interview. 'What dressing room?', she shrugs, fully expecting that lies will be told about her, 'The show was filmed in the open air'.
But likeable as they are, it is difficult to feel sympathy for the Hamiltons. When their party was in power it rode roughshod over its opponents. You might even think that there was poetic justice in their humiliation, but don't kid yourself that it is real, or popular justice. The consequence of Martin Bell's campaign and victory was that a clique of newspaper editors and media fixers corrupted democratic political debate in a way that the worst Tory could only have dreamed of.
Image not substance was at issue between Martin Bell (above) and Neil Hamilton (with wife Christine)
Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997