'A whole generation of people think of me in jungle terms. To them we're just the Hamiltons. Like the Simpsons'

CHRISTINE HAMILTON is away wielding a battleaxe at the London Dungeon for a photo-shoot, so her husband, Neil, shows me into the sitting-room of their seventh-floor flat to wait.

The kitchen now. Christine is home. Justin and Colin’s make-over people are floating about the small flat. And photographers. And builders are coming. Neil stands talking, arms folded, waiting for the kettle to boil. "Darling, don’t hunch your shoulders," says Christine. "It’s very uncomfortable-looking." He’s perfectly comfortable, thank you.

"You make me uncomfortable just looking at you," insists Christine.

"Have you considered blinkers?" asks Neil mildly.

Christine and I go through to sit on the pink thrones. "You look magnificent in that chair," she says. Since my top is an electric shade of turquoise, I have cause to doubt this. Perhaps she’s colour-blind. "Why wear one colour if six will do?" she says. Christine is not short of colour. Indeed, her personality is a rainbow of bold primary shades. Or so the story goes.

She became famous on the deliciously aptly named Knutsford Heath, defending Neil. Many describe him as a disgraced politician, but I wouldn’t dare, because Christine won’t allow it. After being accused by Mohamed Al Fayed of taking cash for parliamentary questions, Neil failed in a bid to sue - and, to add injury to insult, lost his safe Tory seat to Martin Bell, an independent who stood on an anti-sleaze ticket. Christine confronted a stuttering Bell on the heath. Was he accusing her husband of dishonesty? Overnight, she became Knutsford’s Boudicca.

"I suddenly shot into the public psyche, having not even been a household name in my own household. The press just took a snapshot in time, which was not calculated. We all have our breaking points, and this just happened to be mine. And they took that moment in time and decided this is what she is like in total; this is the woman. Which is fair enough, from their point of view, but it certainly wasn’t representative. I was absolutely horrified when I saw the way I was portrayed, absolutely horrified. It was every cartoon in every newspaper the next day." But since it had happened, why not capitalise? Neil suggested she write Great British Battleaxes, and a new career was born.

Her previous career was in the House of Commons, where she worked for 26 years, first as a researcher and then as a political secretary. When Neil became an MP, she worked for him. It was her job to organise him. "It doesn’t cross my mind in public not to say, ‘Come on, Neil, time to go.’ He sort of trots along obediently and people interpret that in quite the wrong way. Neil makes it worse for me. If someone asks, ‘What’s the secret of a happy marriage?’, he’ll say stupid things like, ‘Oh, as long as I do what I’m told...’"

Doesn’t Neil mind that people think of her as dominant, him submissive? "Neil is terribly long-suffering about all that. My strength, or perceived strength, has been used against him so many times. I wear the trousers, he does what he’s told... all that sort of thing." And is it true? "No, of course it’s not true. If it was true, it might have been upsetting for Neil. It might have been upsetting anyway for some men, who couldn’t hack it. But it has never bothered Neil in the slightest."

Does it bother you, Neil? I ask later. No. "We all know who wears the trousers in my house, really," he shouts, hoping Christine will hear.

Once, he was the more famous. Now it’s Christine who is the media darling, asked to take part in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!. "Why would any normal husband be jealous of his wife’s success?" says Christine. "It’s crazy. I’m just the noisy one. I’m more extrovert, more outgoing. Neil is much quieter, more reserved. I tend to bound in like an over-enthusiastic Labrador and lick everybody, while Neil is more reserved."

There is a perplexing question about the Hamiltons’ celebrity status. What are they for? What do they do? Anything that pays, apparently. It began with Have I Got News for You, the week after Neil lost his seat. "People saw what we were really like, that we could laugh at ourselves." After that, Christine hosted her own talk-show. They have appeared in pantomime, done media guest appearances, after-dinner speaking, newspaper articles, books, and now Christine is publishing her autobiography, For Better, for Worse. Not bad when you became famous originally on corruption charges.

Does she find it hard to live with the idea that the public know them for being ‘shamed’? "There’s a whole generation of people who don’t even remember about that, a whole swathe who think of me in jungle terms, who don’t know Neil was in parliament. To them we’re just the Hamiltons. Like the Simpsons."

They may be a cartoon couple now, but the allegations made by Al Fayed were serious. Neil Hamilton had once championed Al Fayed, a controversial figure whose business methods have come under close scrutiny for many years. But after Al Fayed snatched Harrods from under the nose of Tiny Rowland, a DTI report found he had lied. He has, since then, consistently been denied the British passport he so covets. When Hamilton was made a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, Al Fayed, the Hamiltons claim, expected a few favours. (He had once put them up in his Paris hotel, the Ritz.) But as a minister, Hamilton refused to deal with his case. Their relationship turned sour.

Al Fayed claimed in The Guardian that his lobbyist, Ian Greer, had paid Hamilton to raise questions in parliament. Greer denied it, and so did Hamilton. Al Fayed also raised the Ritz visit. From the start, the Hamiltons never denied staying as his guest. In 1987, during an informal conversation, Fayed had asked Hamilton and other MPs where they would be going on holiday. When he heard the Hamiltons were staying with friends in France, he suggested they stop in Paris. He would show them the villa of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, which he had recently acquired. He would put them up for a night in the Ritz.

Once they got there, claims Christine, Al Fayed kept putting off their visit to the villa and urging them to stay another night. They stayed six in total. "We never kept that a secret," she says. "The draw for us was the villa. We were full of it."

All of this might suggest that the Hamiltons were a little careless about standards and simply too willing to take freebies. But she insists that it was commonplace at the time and that the stay was never declared because parliamentary rules were different then. During the same month that the Hamiltons stayed at the Ritz, a British politician was being flown on Concorde to New York by the Unitary Tax Campaign, a client of Ian Greer’s. "When he returned from New York, he asked questions in parliament about the campaign," explains Hamilton. But he never declared the trip. The politician’s name? Tony Blair.

"I am not saying Tony was wrong, because the rules then were different. But if Neil was hung out to dry for the Ritz, what about everybody else? There are legions of examples, whether you go back to Churchill on Onassis’s yachts or whatever. It never crossed Neil’s mind to register his stay, just as it never crossed Tony Blair’s mind to register his trip. It just wasn’t done in those days. People didn’t." By the time the case between Hamilton and Al Fayed came to court, the Ritz visit was ten years old. "It’s very difficult for people to look back and judge something by the standards of the day."

Neil says he risked everything to sue because honesty was important to him. He lost, and was declared bankrupt. Later, the appeal court accepted that Al Fayed had bought papers stolen from Hamilton’s lawyers, outlining their cross-examination plans. Perhaps one of the problems for Hamilton in convincing people of his innocence was that his co-accused, another MP, Tim Smith, admitted accepting money from Al Fayed in brown envelopes. But Smith’s guilt did not prove Hamilton’s. Only two people knew the truth for sure: it was one man’s word against another’s.

Reading through piles of material before my interview with Christine Hamilton, the strange inconsistencies in Al Fayed’s case emerge. He claimed first to have paid Neil Hamilton by cheque, but when no trace was found in bank accounts, he changed the story to his having paid cash. And there were changes in accounts of meetings between one legal hearing and the next. The inconsistencies have been highlighted by a former Granada television reporter, Jonathan Hunt, who would later stand in Tatton as an independent candidate, just as Martin Bell did, but on a ‘Neil Hamilton is innocent’ platform. Frustrated by his attempts to get the media to examine the evidence he had uncovered - it meant exposing underhand media methods - Hunt wrote a book and compiled a detailed website outlining Hamilton’s innocence.

One article about Hunt’s evidence did appear in print and was published in March 1998. The writer, James Heartfield, made clear that he didn’t know if Hamilton was innocent or not. But he could not understand why Hunt’s evidence was being so undemocratically blocked. In which paper did Heartfield champion the cause of the Tory MP? The right-wing Daily Mail, perhaps? Or The Telegraph? Not quite. Living Marxism.

A digression. In the pink room with the zebra carpet, a memory drifts into mind of an even more surreal interview location from years ago. I am being shown into a tent in the grounds of Mohamed Al Fayed’s Scottish castle at Balnagowan. It is December, just after Christmas. The air is freezing and snow covers the ground. Al Fayed receives me in the tent, sitting with a blanket over his knees.

He is stern at first, then becomes kindly, charming, mischievous. He is like butter: soft in the right conditions, brick-hard when it gets chilly. Eventually he relents, taking me inside the castle. He asks how many children I have and puts a Harrods teddy for each in a carrier bag. No, no, he mustn’t. Mohamed does not take no for an answer. I leave with a carrier bag and a red face.

It is a kind gesture, but something else too. He gets his secretary to phone every few days asking for a copy of my article. I feel uncomfortable, as if I owe him somehow. Shortly before publication, I send him the article, for information only. After all, what can he do? It’s a lesson learned the hard way. He phones personally, wanting changes. I refuse. Mistakenly, I think that’s the end of it. The day before our ‘exclusive’ interview, a double-page spread appears in a tabloid, a thinly disguised version of my piece - minus the tough bits. I know how Al Fayed works. When people cross him, he had said in the interview, "I go for them and I destroy them."

THE Hamiltons are brilliant publicists, but I don’t buy the portrait of Christine Hamilton in bold primary colours. Nor the portrait of Neil Hamilton standing knock-kneed and ineffectual in her wake. That’s the public game. In private, those roles are reversed. The trustee acting for Al Fayed during Hamilton’s bankruptcy was merciless, the couple claim. Christine admits that it was she who went to pieces, relying on antidepressants and too much alcohol.

Neil was allowed to earn only a minimum amount, any excess going to Al Fayed. "He said to the trustee, ‘I can assure you that I won’t be earning any more than the basic allowance, because I am not lifting a finger to pay money to Al Fayed.’ We owed our lawyers money, which we paid off - that was a moral debt. But we did not regard the money to Al Fayed as a moral debt."

It was a defiant stand, but Christine admits that she was struggling. "I was feeling very depressed. My father wasn’t well, my mother had had a heart attack, and there was a point where I could see them both going and life seemed awful. [Her father has since died, but her mother is still alive.] I was brewing up an ovarian cyst, which was giving me a lot of pain, and I didn’t know what that was. I had awful digestive problems, and I just seemed to be a complete emotional and physical wreck."

The doctor prescribed antidepressants. But there was another problem. "I was drinking far too much. I was sometimes drinking at ten in the morning. I was never in danger of being an alcoholic, but I was drinking far too much. For many months you think, ‘I’m drinking too much.’ And then you think, ‘Oh well, sod it, I’ll have another drink and then I won’t be worried about it.’ That’s your way of dealing with it. I wasted so much time, because if you have too much to drink you don’t do very much with the evening. And then you don’t sleep so well, so you don’t feel so good the next morning. It just becomes a downward spiral. Somehow you just have to get a grip."

She is from a family of strong women. Her gentle characteristics come from her doctor father, her more aggressive ones from her strong-willed mother. Her grandmother was a suffragette, but, surprisingly, the only question she hesitates at is when asked if she considers herself a feminist. She is very pro-women, but the word has become associated with militancy. "There is nothing wrong with being militant, but it’s not something I would associate with me."

Others would. "People don’t believe it, but I promise you I really don’t like confrontation." When she first entered the House of Commons as a researcher, she wanted to be an MP. She changed her mind. "I realised I did not have that basic confrontational instinct. That’s not to say I don’t have strong opinions. But I don’t like having arguments with people." For that reason, she turns down all invitations to speak at political events. "I have joined the 98% of the population who don’t give a damn what happens at Westminster."

But she is volatile - far more so than Neil. "Neil will not argue. If I - metaphorically, I hasten to add - throw a milk bottle at him, he won’t throw it back. He’ll catch it and wait for the next. And that is very frustrating. But it does mean you don’t say all the things you’ll regret. I stomp and storm, but I’m much more mercurial and emotional than he is."

Yet she has been unfailingly loyal to him. There must have been a point where it crossed her mind that he was guilty. Did she ever ask outright? "No, there was no need - he doesn’t have secrets. If a letter arrives with ‘strictly private and confidential’ 50 million times on the envelope, I just open it. I have secrets from him, mind, but that’s different - I’m a woman. As in, okay, I’ll pay half in cash and half by credit card, so that it looks half the price. All that sort of thing."

Would there, though, have been limits to loyalty? If Neil had been guilty of corruption, would she have stood by him? "Not if he had lied to me. I think that’s where the difference is. I never had any problems being shoulder to shoulder, because I knew the truth. The women I find extraordinary are the ones who go out there shoulder to shoulder when their husbands have lied to them repeatedly. It’s all very well in public, but when you go behind closed doors... I don’t know. I don’t think I could do that."

There have been difficult times. But, she says, no relationship is easy, whether it’s with your mother, your father, your dog or the traffic warden. "Life is fraught with difficulty, and human relationships are almost calculated to be tricky. But when a couple are threatened in any way by the outside world, whether it’s a terminally ill child or death or anything, it can drive you together. Or if there is somewhere for that outside pressure to get in, it drives you apart. If you let it in, before you know it you’re gone. So don’t let it in."

The lowest point of all came in 2001, when Nadine Milroy-Sloan accused the Hamiltons of rape. The allegations were proved false within weeks and Milroy-Sloan was jailed. She had previously been offered cash by Al Fayed if she could provide evidence of her allegations. Rape is second only to murder, says Christine. As a woman, she found it really upsetting to be accused by another woman of such a crime.

But she is happy now the way life has turned out. Neil has business interests again, as chairman of a recruitment agency, and she makes a living out of media and entertainment. Five years ago, aged 50, she started out on a whole new career. How many people get to do that? Having lost their house through bankruptcy, they now have a new property in Wiltshire.

She gets accused of being undignified in what she agrees to do for money, but when you’re bankrupt what choice do you have? I rather admire her survival instinct. She is warm and very frank. Funny, too. You would have to be to live in a pink-and-black room with a zebra-stripe carpet.

For Better, For Worse, 16.99, by Christine Hamilton, is published by Robson Books