Neil and Christine Hamilton are clattering down the sweeping stairs of Carmarthenshire county hall, their voices echoing from the ceiling. They’re in high spirits after handing in his nomination papers as a UKIP Welsh assembly candidate. “Right, we need some photos!” Christine says, and we all traipse outside to watch her husband posing proudly with a yellow folder. Nineteen years after his bruising downfall as a Conservative MP, he is relaunching his career as a frontline politician.
The 67-year-old is unlikely to win the constituency of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, but the Welsh assembly also includes 20 candidates decided by proportional representation – and he could well be elected that way for Mid and West Wales, where he's top of the UKIP candidates list. "Christine thinks I’m a lunatic," Neil says bluntly, as we move to a nearby hotel for coffee. She readily agrees: "The last thing I wanted was to get back in politics but as I always say, if you’re shackled to a political lunatic…” He points out: “Well, we’re going to have a quiet time for the rest of eternity.”
The couple, who have been married for 33 years, are one of the best-known – or, less charitably, infamous – double acts in politics. Christine regularly answers her husband’s phone on his behalf, and she arranged the logistics of this interview. She insists later she's "actually delighted” with his decision to stand. "I’m a quarter Welsh myself so I’ve always felt an affinity with Wales, it’s a beautiful part of the world,” she says. "So that’s not a problem at all. I shall just be glad when the election’s out of the way, to be honest, because there’s so much nastiness, and I’ve always disliked that."
Neil Hamilton will always be remembered for the “cash for questions" scandal and the humiliation of being unseated in Tatton by anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell in 1997. After entering parliament in 1983, he served as a government whip under Margaret Thatcher and corporate affairs minister under John Major. But in 1994 The Guardian revealed allegations that he had accepted envelopes of cash from Harrods boss Mohamed al-Fayed in exchange for parliamentary questions. He sued the paper for libel – after getting a 300-year-old law changed to allow a sitting MP to bring an action – but dropped the case at the eleventh hour.
The affair led to him being kicked out of Westminster in disgrace. His former seat has been held by George Osborne, the current chancellor, since 2001.
The Hamiltons wasted no time in seeking to capitalise on their notoriety by accepting invitations on to all manner of TV shows and theatre productions. Christine was on the first episode of I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and reached the final of Celebrity Masterchef, while her husband appeared on Da Ali G Show and Mastermind. They even donned basques and suspenders to star in a stage tour of The Rocky Horror Show. Neil told filmmaker Louis Theroux in 2001 that they made their living as “objects of professional curiosity”.
He's convinced that his showbiz career is helping him win over voters in Wales. "I think what I bring to this election campaign uniquely is that people know my name and my face, not principally from politics but because of all the entertainment stuff we’ve done on TV,” Neil tells BuzzFeed News. "So people see us in a kind of soft-focus nonpolitical context, even though I’m standing there with a party rosette on. That means I can reach parts of the population that aren’t normally interested in politics at all.”
Christine, 66, says she feels “extremely lucky” to have done a "whole raft of fun, fun things” since 1997. "The idea of spending all those years doing politics would be awful, I feel completely sort of refreshed and rejuvenated." she says. "We’ve had a huge amount of fun and we’ve acquired some amazingly wacky friends, away from the rather more sedate world of politics. I’m actually very pleased with the way it’s all worked out."
It was UKIP leader Nigel Farage who personally invited them to join the party in 2002. He invited the couple to lunch and asked them both to be candidates for the 2004 European elections. “At that time we were trying to make a career in showbusiness and television,” Neil says. “Politics tends to divide people and so it didn’t fit in with our career plans at the time, so I had to say sadly 'thanks but no thanks'. But the least you could do for a four-bottle lunch was join the party.”
Christine adds: “No way would I stand, I have no desire.” Neil says that for several years, he didn’t do very much for UKIP except speak at public meetings. “And then about five, six years ago," he says, "I decided we’d achieved our initial objective of repairing our finances and we’d established ourselves in a new career and had the freedom to devote some time to politics again. So I got elected to UKIP’s national executive and I was the campaign director in the European elections in 2014 and a deputy chairman of UKIP. And when this opportunity came up it seemed like the logical next step."
Polls suggest that UKIP could pick up as many as nine seats in the 5 May election – and could deny Labour control of the 60-seat Welsh assembly. It would be the first time the anti-EU party has won a seat in the Senedd, which lies in Cardiff Bay. But Neil's appointment to the top of the candidates list – along with fellow ex-Tory MP Mark Reckless – caused some consternation among some UKIP members who raised concerns about his Welsh credentials. Farage was reportedly among those who tried to block his candidacy amid fears that his scandal-hit history would put off voters.
Neil, whose real first name is Mostyn, grew up in the Carmarthenshire town of Ammanford. "Of course, a lot of people were very surprised to discover I’ve got this deep Welsh hinterland, and it’s completely defused the issue,” he says. "Because I am a genuine Cymro Cymraeg, a Welsh-speaking Welshman.” He spells it out for me and Christine urges me to double check the spelling. "We don’t want something rude appearing on BuzzFeed and it’s your fault,” she tells her husband.
"There’s a word in Welsh – hiraeth,” Neil goes on. He spells that out too. "It means a kind of irresistible pull back to where you were born and grew up, kind of more than nostalgia. Wherever you may have wandered around the world in the course of your life, Wales draws you back.” But he admits he “couldn’t wait to get out” of Wales when he was growing up.
“Swinging London in the 1960s and all that, the bright lights and the wider world,” he says. "Wales was, it seemed to me at the time, anyway, a rain-sodden nonconformist outpost where the pubs weren’t open on Sundays. So as an ambitious teenager I wanted to get out.” He quickly adds: "Of course, everything has changed in the last 50 years – and for the better, I would say."
The couple don’t currently have a home in Wales – they live in Wiltshire – but Neil insists this isn’t a problem. "Assuming that the Welsh people don’t reject me, we will obviously find somewhere in Cardiff in the first instance,” he says. Christine adds: "The problem with Mid and West Wales is it’s so enormous. We need a mobile home!"
It’s not the first time UKIP bosses have apparently tried to thwart his election chances. Back in 2014 he was forced to pull out of two races to be a general election candidate – in South Basildon and East Thurrock, and in Boston and Skegness. The candidacy in the latter seat went to Robin Hunter-Clarke, who was aged just 22 at the time and lost it to the Tories by 4,336 votes. Hunter-Clarke is now masterminding Neil's campaign in Wales and joins us for the interview, tapping away on his phone.
Is Neil angry that Farage tried to prevent him standing in Wales? "Well, he didn’t have a vote in this, but all the Welsh members of UKIP did,” he says with a smile. "So I’m here today because they voted for me.”
Is he on friendly terms with Farage? “Well...he comes to the national executive committee meeting once a month, which I’m on, and he’s on the road all the time…” Christine adds: "We saw him at that rally the other day, last week.” Neil grabs at the lifeline: "Usually when I see him we’re surrounded by hundreds of other people because we’re at rallies."
Neil admits UKIP is in some turmoil ahead of the EU referendum, as two groups – Vote Leave and Grassroots Out – battle for the official designation as the Out camp. "It has undoubtedly been a difficult time because it’s mattered quite a lot,” he says. “Obviously as the official campaigning organisation, you’ve then got a status which is going to be quite important, so that’s why it has been so fraught, shall we say, rather than divisive. But that’ll soon be water under the bridge and we’ll go forward together in unity."
Neil was spotted at a Vote Leave event at UKIP’s spring conference in north Wales earlier this year. So is he a Vote Leaver? "I haven’t allied myself with either, actually,” he insists. Sitting next to him, Hunter-Clarke is proudly sporting a red-and-white Vote Leave badge on his lapel. "We’re not responsible for his badge – that’s his decision!” Christine says.
Neil insists the two campaigns are "complementary rather than competitive”. He explains: “Vote Leave is more of an establishment body in terms of the names that are supporting it. But the Grassroots Out campaign, financed by Arron Banks, is more of a buccaneering gadfly kind of organisation and I think that adds a lot of spice, which we definitely need. So if you marry the two together you’ve got the perfect vehicle."
His Labour rivals have been quick to accuse UKIP of parachuting in a “gaggle of failed Tories” into Wales. Neil becomes visibly angry at this, saying Labour is “desperate to talk about anything apart from the EU or their responsibility for the failure of the health service in Wales, for the complete impotence of the Welsh or Westminster government to do anything about the steel crisis”.
But surely the former minister is concerned that his political opponents will keep bringing up the “cash for questions" scandal. One market trader in Carmarthen told BuzzFeed News she wouldn’t vote for him, because “he’s got history, hasn’t he?” Neil says: "That was a pack of lies. I wasn’t charged, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for expenses fraud like so many ex-Labour MPs. So I think they’re trying a very high-risk strategy if they try to do that.”
He's making the EU the key issue of his election campaign and hopes the looming referendum will “maximise” his support. "Although there are domestic issues, of course – health and education principally – the assembly has limited powers,” he says. “And if you campaign solely on assembly issues, I think that would miss the big picture. I think the background to this is EU membership because that hobbles us in so many ways."
While immigration is not a direct problem for Wales in the same way it is in parts of England, he says, a “ripple effect” has been felt through depressed wages, pressure on the NHS, school places, and transport. "Bearing in mind 50 years ago when Enoch Powell made his earth-shattering speech, which is now called the 'Rivers of Blood' speech, net immigration was 50,000 a year,” he says. “But immigration then is nothing like the scale we see today, where we’re increasing our population every year through immigration alone by a city the size of Cardiff, 350,000 people added to the population.” He says there are "all sorts of insoluble problems caused by our inability to control our own borders, and we’re the only party proposing a solution”.
There’s not a lot of love left for the party Neil dedicated his life to for over three decades. "The Conservative party is effectively a rotting corpse,” he says. "David Cameron hasn’t got a shred of principle in his body, and they told outright lies, of course, particularly on the EU. He’s now claiming credit for the referendum, which we forced on him.
"We have a chancellor who sits in my old constituency in Cheshire who likes to talk about the policy of austerity... Well, there’s been almost no change whatsoever to the underlying deficit that the government’s carrying. He’s doubled the national debt in five years. He has been a worse chancellor than Gordon Brown – in fact, he’s the worst chancellor in living memory."
Neil says he feels "impelled by a sense of duty” to stand for election again. "All my life I’ve been fired up by my beliefs and the sort of society I want to live in," he says. "I also enjoy the rough and tumble of politics of course, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. But this is what I’ve done all my life. I’m still the same at heart as I was at 15. A lot of signs of decay in the physical sense but in every other respect I remain just as enthusiastic as I was then."
So does this mean the end of the Hamiltons on TV game shows? Christine leans forward. "I’ve turned down Celebrity Big Brother four times,” she confides. "And last summer, an eye-watering sum of money! Never, never, never. It’s too… I just hate it.” Surely it’s similar to I’m a Celebrity, in which she came third in 2002? "No it’s not, it isn’t,” she says, and her husband agrees: "It isn’t.” Christine goes on: "The jungle is qualitatively different. Big Brother is so manipulative – I could not stand it to be told by one disembodied voice what to do, everything in me would rebel from the word go. And communal sleeping, thank you very much, with goodness knows who, no way."
Was the money tempting? "No," Neil says, "we didn’t think twice about it, actually.” Christine adds: "I mean, some of my friends just said, 'You’re mad!' But no way. Money’s not that important. We’ve got enough to juggle along. We’ve moved into a new phase now so we’re not interested in that any more. I keep turning down Come Dine With Me too, I don’t want to do that either, I don’t like it. It’s so sarcastic, and Quentin Letts [actually Dave Lamb] doing the voiceover, no thanks. I did my Masterchef and that’ll do."
What about a celebrity version of The Great British Bake Off? Christine shakes her head. "Oh no, I couldn’t stand the strain any longer – the strain in Masterchef was monumental and I really don’t want to go through that again.” Her husband adds: "We’re not allowed to eat cake anyway, it’s not on the diet.” Oh, are they both on a diet? “Permanently,” he says sadly. Christine intervenes: "Well, we try to keep things moderately under control. As you get older it gets harder and harder, it really does.” Neil adds: "Especially when you drink as much as we do. We follow Nigel’s example, don’t we?"
Then they’re off, reminiscing about their greatest hits on television. Neil wistfully remembers his appearance on Da Ali G Show in 2000, saying: "I appeared through a giant pair of women’s legs on the stage...” Christine adds: "I nearly fainted when that happened." "I didn’t realise I was behind them,” he continues. "I think I’m the only politician who can claim to have done that."
Christine urges me to watch a clip of Tony Benn speaking to Ali G. “He's so sweet with him, trying to explain…” she says.
"Is it because I is black?” Neil blurts out. Christine looks at him briefly before continuing. "I think Ali G uses this awful phrase like ‘chill out with da bitch’, and Tony Benn’s face... Benn takes it all wonderfully seriously, it’s completely brilliant, so sweet."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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