By BRUCE ANDERSON and AGENCIES
Neil and Christine Hamilton were once invited to Taiwan by British Airways, back in the days when Lord King was chairman. The Hamiltons flew first class, naturally, and BA took care of all the bills, which is how they like to travel.
Towards the end of their stay, they asked if they could come back via Hong Kong; the airline was happy to agree. They then asked if British Airways would pay their Hong Kong hotel bill; British Airways declined.
No sooner had the Hamiltons arrived in Hong Kong than Neil Hamilton phoned Lord King's office. Christine Hamilton had contracted food poisoning during the flight from Taiwan. They would now have to prolong their stay in Hong Kong, and in the circumstances, British Airways would surely wish to cover their hotel bill.
British Airways had other plans. At that time, Lord King's chief of staff was David Burnside, now a Unionist MP. Burnside, a tough Ulsterman, was unamused by the Hamiltons' tricks. He immediately phoned Neil Hamilton, and told him that Lord King would be appalled when he heard what had happened to Christine Hamilton. BA hated the thought of any passenger catching food poisoning on any of its flights, let alone in first class.
The matter would have to be investigated. Fortunately, one of the world's leading experts on food poisoning worked in Hong Kong, and was a consultant to BA. He would be straight round to examine Christine Hamilton. But even before he reached the hotel, she had made a remarkable recovery. There was no further mention of hotel bills.
The Hamiltons are vulgar and greedy. They are a taste-free zone. But they are petty sleaze-mongers, not arch-villains. When it comes to blagging air tickets or free dinners, they have plenty of form, but rapists?
If the allegations that they were involved in the sexual assault of a 28-year-old woman while another man raped her at his flat in Ilford had been levelled at anyone except the Hamiltons, one suspects that the natural scepticism of the police would have come into play.
But the circus that developed is typical of the couple. When they went to the police to give their statements they were accompanied by a television crew from the BBC whose offbeat documentary-maker Louis Theroux is filming them. Their legal representatives released transcripts.
Low profile is not a concept they understand. The unconventional defence is hardly surprising for a couple who, ever since the former cabinet minister resigned from government in 1994, have been involved in a fight for political survival, endless legal battles and all manner of media roles.
Neil Hamilton was forced to resign as a Tory trade and industry minister after claims that he took money from Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, in return for asking questions in Parliament.
He took his feud with al-Fayed to the High Court and lost a libel action in 1999. He then lost an appeal and ended up in dire financial straits.
When he lost his Tatton seat to the anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell, the BBC war reporter, his wife confronted the newsman.
"Do you accept my husband is innocent?" she boomed in a confrontation later dubbed the Battle of Knutsford Heath.
Just days after their court defeat by al-Fayed, they appeared on the BBC's Have I Got News For You?, the satirical quiz show.
During the programme the couple were handed brown envelopes in a mimic of the brown envelopes Neil Hamilton was supposed to have accepted from al-Fayed.
Neil Hamilton was born on March 9, 1949, into a Welsh mining family. He was a barrister but always said he would not return to that "constipated" profession.
He married Christine in a hurried ceremony in Cornwall while he was fighting his parliamentary campaign in 1983.
At that wedding, the Hamiltons typically used as a buttonhole the rose Invincible, specially grown, bred and named as a tribute to the Falklands task force.
He was a very visible presence in the House of Commons. When he was made Parliamentary Wit of the Year by The Spectator magazine in 1989, he said he thought it had made him Twit of the Year.
He dismissed Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as "a typical terrorist organisation" and he attacked the BBC for screening a Mandela pop concert at Wembley in 1988 before the ANC leader was released from prison.
Although now classed as a bankrupt, while managing to keep two homes, Neil Hamilton still operates in London's leading social circles. One of the doubts raised about the rape allegations is the unlikelihood of the Hamiltons being found in Ilford, an Essex town notably lacking glamour. Just before they went to the police on the latest allegations they were at the funeral of Lord Longford at Westminster Cathedral.
All through these times, Christine Hamilton has stood by her man, even hosting a television chat show, talking to celebrities about adversity in their lives and compiling a Bumper Book of British Battle Axes.
She is well versed in politics. In the early 1970s, the then Christine Holman - daughter of a doctor - was secretary for a Tory MP called Wilfred Proudfoot.
And then she was allegedly head-hunted by the flamboyant Sir Gerald Nabarro, the wealthy Worcestershire Tory MP who sported a spectacular handlebar moustache and a booming voice.
She supported Sir Gerald during his trial for alleged dangerous driving at Winchester in 1972.
Throughout the trial, she clutched a piece of lucky white heather and wept when he was acquitted. And for her support, Sir Gerald rewarded her with a gleaming, dark-blue Mini.
But as for connections with real villainy, it is not even clear whether Neil Hamilton was guilty of the original offence that ended his political career: receiving brown envelope subventions from al-Fayed.
The circumstantial evidence is strong. There were brown envelopes going; a former Tory MP, Tim Smith, admitted that he took one. Neil Hamilton was an associate of al-Fayed's, who was clearly trying to build up a client-list of Tory MPs.
Moreover, it is easy to imagine how Neil Hamilton would have justified the brown envelopes to himself. (Not that self-justification would ever have been much of a problem for him where cash was involved.)
"I am the most brilliant man of my generation," he would have said, "just as Benjamin Disraeli was of his. Disraeli had no money, but was subsidised by the Duke of Portland and the Rothschilds, who were hugely rich. I am receiving a much smaller subsidy from my friend al-Fayed, who acknowledges my genius and who is also hugely rich. What could be wrong with that?"
Latin may have been virtually banished from the courtrooms, but the police still use the term MO when referring to a rogue's known habits, though few constables now realise that it is short for modus operandi. In the Hamilton/Fayed/brown envelopes case, the MO would appear to be characteristic of both parties. Even so, there are two problems.
The first is Neil Hamilton's vanity. The same vanity that would have led him to trouser the brown envelopes as no more than his due would also have led him to boast about them. At the time, one Tory whip said: "I don't think that Hamilton would have taken brown envelopes. If he had, we would have known, because he would have told everyone all about it."
The second is Neil Hamilton's imprudence. A low and cunning fellow who was a regular beneficiary of brown envelopes would have taken the trouble to conceal the fact.
But Neil Hamilton is not cunning. If he had been given a brown envelope, he would immediately have carved himself out a thick wad of dosh and shoved it in his wallet. For the next couple of weeks, his plastic would have gone to sleep. So it should have been easy to trace the impact of the brown envelopes on his credit cards and money machine cards; all the evidence would be on file.
The records have been examined - and there is no such impact. There is no sign of any falling away of plastic use after the days on which Neil Hamilton is supposed to have received al-Fayed's brown-enveloped shilling.
When it came to al-Fayed's supposed temptations, Neil Hamilton did have motive, means and opportunity. This does not mean that he committed the offence.
Even if he did, there is one powerful plea in mitigation. When Neil Hamilton was made a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), al-Fayed was delighted. He now had a friend in a crucial ministry, and brown envelopes or not, there had been a lavish week at the Ritz to build up a debt of gratitude.
Al-Fayed promptly wrote to congratulate Neil Hamilton on his appointment, but the reply came as a rude shock. Neil Hamilton thanked him for his good wishes and his friendship, but went on to say that because of their friendship, he would have to stand aside from any disputes involving al-Fayed which came within the DTI's purview; other ministers would have to deal with them.
That is not why al-Fayed cultivated politicians; he did not expect that when they became important and were in a position to exercise influence, they would promptly stand aside. It had never occurred to Neil Hamilton to do other than observe the ministerial code of ethics. That is why al-Fayed decided to destroy him.
There is a lot of competition, but throughout a chequered career, Neil Hamilton has always managed to be his own worst enemy. He is a silly fellow, who brought discredit on a decent Prime Minister, John Major, who tried to protect him long after more ruthless premiers would have swept him aside.
But none of these antics deserves a life-long persecution.