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Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK


Aitken's avoidable road to ruin

The former Cabinet minister says he is prepared for prison

Jonathan Aitken's downfall began in April 1995 when he decided to sue for libel over a series of allegations made against him by The Guardian and World in Action.

Portraying himself as a crusader for truth, Aitken resigned his hard-won Cabinet post as chief secretary to the Treasury in order to concentrate his energies on the case.

Standing in Conservative Central Office, the former journalist famously declared he would cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with "the sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play".

Four years on and that libel action and the lies told in an attempt to win it have left Aitken, once tipped as a future Tory prime minister, a ruined man.

Hotel bill allegation

The allegations that led Aitken to call for the lawyers first surfaced in The Guardian in October 1993.

[ image: Mohamed al-Fayed revealed details of Aitken's Paris trip]
Mohamed al-Fayed revealed details of Aitken's Paris trip
The newspaper said that Aitken, then defence procurement minister, had spent a weekend at the Ritz Hotel in Paris that September.

At this time one of Aitken jobs was to keep a defence deal with the Saudi royal family on track.

The Guardian's source for the Aitken story was Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of the Ritz and Harrods.

Furious at the government's refusal to grant him a UK passport, Mr al-Fayed made sleaze allegations against Aitken and several other Tory MPs.

He claimed that Aitken's bill had been paid for by Said Ayas - a businessman with close connections to the Saudi royal family and godfather to one of the MP's daughters.

Scandal temporarily stopped

When Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler investigated, Aitken falsely claimed that after an initial mix-up his wife Lolicia had settled the bill.

Aitken was cleared of breaking any of the rules governing ministers accepting gifts.

His own assessment that the Ritz affair had "blown over" appeared correct when John Major promoted him to be chief secretary to the Treasury in July 1994.

But just three months later, in October, The Guardian and Granada TV's World in Action programme joined forces to repeat the Ritz allegations and to make new claims.

Aitken, they said, had procured prostitutes for his Arab clients on their visits to the UK. They also claimed that Aitken as a director of BMARC must have known about the company's sales of guns to Iran, in contradiction of a United Nations embargo.

Aitken refuses settlement

In response, the Eton-and-Oxford educated MP eventually issued writs against both his accusers.

Presenting himself as a wronged man, Aitken argued that the real sleaze was not in the scandal-hit Major government but sections of the media.

So unflinching was his apparent desire to have his day in court that he even rejected The Guardian's offer that he should drop his libel suit in return for each side paying their own legal costs.

Dropping out then would have left a reported £200,000 dent in Aitken's fortune, then estimated at about £3m.

Compared with all that has happened to him since then it seems like a bargain.

Libel case collapses

In March 1997, when the case reached the High Court, Aitken again insisted his wife had picked up the tab at the Ritz.

But the case sensationally collapsed in June when The Guardian produced evidence that Mrs Aitken had been in Switzerland, not Paris, over the entire weekend in question.

The evidence also contradicted a signed statement by Mr Aitken's daughter Victoria, then 17, which supported her father's version of events.

[ image: Said Ayas: Charges against him were dropped]
Said Ayas: Charges against him were dropped
Aitken, by now no longer an MP, had been exposed a liar and faced having to pay the massive legal bills for both sides.

His marriage collapsed and he was charged with perjury and three counts of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Victoria Aitken.

At his trial in January this year, Aitken admitted committing perjury by claiming under oath that his wife had paid the Ritz bill.

He also pleaded guilty to conspiring to pervert the course of justice by drafting a false witness statement under his daughter's name and then getting her to sign it.

The two charges which he denied were ordered to lie on the file. Charges against Mr Ayas were subsequently dropped.

'I have no excuses'

[ image: Victoria Aitken was arrested but never charged]
Victoria Aitken was arrested but never charged
Aitken, was released on bail to await a sentence, which he was warned was likely to be a lengthy jail term.

"I have learned my lessons. I hope I never tell any lies again. Sometimes you become a prisoner of your own lie. Ultimately I have no excuses," he said.

"The libel battle was fought on six battlefields. I was a commander winning on five of them and had to shore up the line of defence on the other one, and it was there that I fell."

Further humiliation followed in March when Aitken, unable to pay his legal debts, had himself declared bankrupt.

The bailiffs moved in stripping him of most of the possessions he had not already sold, including his Rolex watch and his son's personal computer.

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