Jonathan Aitken: A broken man

Twenty years ago his star was in the ascendant. Jonathan Aitken mixed with beautiful women, made millions and was tipped to be a future Prime Minister. Today he is disgraced, divorced and facing a lengthy prison sentence. This is the story of the man who lied and lost
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The Independent Culture
It was a pleasant evening of good food, fine wine and exquisite company. Jonathan Aitken, 30, successful, handsome and with all the right connections, was charting the future course of his life to a choice selection of his actor friends and chums in the media. Go into business and become fabulously rich, become an MP, then a minister and finally prime minister. There were dates for the scaling of each of these peaks. The climb was slower than he anticipated. But 22 years later, in 1994, he was in the Cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury. He'd made a pile of money from lucrative business deals with Arabs. And he owned properties at home and abroad including a pounds 2m Westminster house, the former London home of Brendan Bracken, where he entertained the likes of Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger.

The downfall that followed is almost Shakespearean in its dimensions: here stands a man fatally flawed by his own arrogance. The final act came with his disastrous High Court action against The Guardian and Granada TV, and the words that would later come back to haunt him: "the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play."

Aitken had sued over a series of serious allegations made about his relationship with wealthy Arabs, including the report that a pounds 1,000 bill for his stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in l993 had been paid by a Saudi contact. Giving evidence, Aitken lied under oath about the payment, inventing roles in the saga for his wife and young daughter. He was found out and humiliatingly forced to withdraw his action. The man whose head had been full of great plans at the age of 30 suddenly discovered that he'd lost his credibility as a public figure.

The dreams of greatness are now just cold ashes. But yesterday the man once tipped as a future Tory leader managed to make a mark of sorts in history - as the first former cabinet minister to plead guilty to perjury and perverting the course of justice and, with that, likely to face a lengthy prison sentence.

Aitken is, he says, now broke. The house in Westminster will have to be sold. His marriage, he says, is over. Politically he is a man who is isolated, apart from a small circle of maverick right-wing friends.

What makes Aitken's decline and fall so spectacular is that his background really did suggest he was destined to live and prosper among the elite. He was born into a family from the pages of Who's Who. His great-uncle was Lord Beaverbrook, and his grandfather the distinguished colonial civil servant Lord Rugby. His father, Sir William Traven Aitken, was a Conservative MP.

The young Aitken was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford, to read law. As an undergraduate he already had access to the corridors of power. Lord Beaverbrook acted as a conduit for the young man while advising him: "You must stir up mischief."

During his summer vacation Aitken worked as a speechwriter for Selwyn Lloyd, Harold Macmillan's chancellor of the exchequer. He built up a good relationship with Macmillan's successor as premier, Sir Alec Douglas Home, and at the age of 20 he was being lined up by Randolph Churchill, the Tory fixer, as a parliamentary candidate. Aitken joined one of the family newspapers, the Evening Standard, and soon published his first book, The Young Meteors, about the best and brightest of his generation who, he predicted, would rise effortlessly to claim their places as leaders of the country. Those he picked out included Nigel Lawson, David Steel, Norman Lamont, the actors Tom Courteney and Vanessa Redgrave, and Mary Quant.

Aitken saw himself, of course, as one of the meteors and it all seemed to be going so well. Already he had a blossoming journalistic career and a safe Tory seat was on offer at Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire. But then there was the first public manifestation of fundamental character flaws: a tendency towards duplicity and an over-confidence in his ability to control situations and individuals - the very traits that would one day lead to his downfall. Aitken obtained a confidential report on the Nigerian Civil War from Major General Henry Templar Alexander, the father of one of his girlfriends, and sold it to The Sunday Telegraph. He then falsely told the general that Sir Hugh Fraser, the Tory MP, had supplied the story. It was Aitken's second betrayal of Fraser, a friend and benefactor. He was already having an affair with the man's wife.

Publication of the report caused a diplomatic row and Aitken found himself for the first time in the dock at the Old Bailey - in fact, in the same Court Number One where he was to plead guilty yesterday - charged under the Official Secrets Act. He was acquitted after a favourable summing- up from the judge, Mr Justice Caulfield (later to become famous for describing Mary Archer as "fragrant"), but picked up a reputation for untrustworthiness. He lost the Thirsk nomination. Temporarily frustrated in his political ambitions, Aitken turned his attention to money. The Middle East, he decided, was the place where an ambitious young man in a hurry could make his fortune. He started to make contacts among Arab businessmen, and his big break came with a meeting in Paris in l973 with the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Fahd. Twenty years later, another visit to Paris and the paying of a hotel bill by his Arab contacts were to lead to the High Court libel action and Aitken's fall.

The Arabian connection made Aitken enormously wealthy, enabling him to launch Aitken Hume International, a pounds 50m financial services group, with his cousin Tim. He also built up investments in defence systems, a Hong Kong trading corporation and TV-AM where, famously, the presenter Anna Ford threw a glass of wine over him at a Chelsea party because she believed he was behind her sacking from the breakfast-time line-up.

Aitken's political prospects revived when he entered the Commons in 1974 as MP for Thanet East (later the constituency became Thanet South). His right-wing credentials appeared to suit the winds of change blowing through the Conservative Party. He saw himself as one of the new ideologues and began hosting brain-storming dinners. His performance on the back bench was generally well reviewed.

Socially he built up a reputation as a ladies' man, having affairs with, as well as his friend Hugh Fraser's wife Antonia, Adnan Khashoggi's ex- wife Soraya - with whom, he was to discover recently, he had an illegitimate daughter - and Carol Thatcher. Aitken was used to casually discarding what he considered to be spent relationships, but the dumping of Margaret Thatcher's daughter proved costly. Lady Thatcher is said to have remarked that she would be damned if she was going to give a job to a man "who made Carol cry", and Aitken was never given the opportunity to escape the back benches during her term in office. She was also less than pleased when, in a newspaper interview, the brash young MP said of her: "I wouldn't say she is open-minded on the Middle East so much as empty-headed. She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of Sinus."

In l979 Aitken married Lolicia Azucki, a Swiss economist born in Yugoslavia. Even here there was an Arab connection. Lolicia was introduced to Aitken by the mother of an Arab aide of Prince Mohammed. Lolicia gave him children and outwardly Aitken seemed to settle into domesticity. His busy political and business life was, he said, buttressed by Christianity, and he served as a churchwarden of St Margaret's, Westminster. But, like so much else in his life, this was not the whole story. His affairs continued, including a sado-masochistic one with a prostitute.

Aitken finally made it to ministerial office under John Major, first as defence procurement minister, then as Treasury chief secretary. Through his contacts he boosted British arms sales in the region. In 1994 he was with John Major in Riyadh when the Saudis signed a pounds 5bn deal for Tornado fighter-bombers. Aitken was not slow to take credit for this business, and it also helped to some extent to camouflage his own mysterious dealings with the Saudis. However, as he climbed up the government ladder Aitken was starting to come under increased scrutiny.

His flaw was his arrogance. He didn't think he had to be careful. Was he not, after all, one of the masters of the universe, who could always win against lesser men? He was part of the system, and the system was there for him to use. Thus he took an extreme risk. As a minister, he visited his Saudi friends in Paris and allowed them pay his hotel bill. Mohamed al-Fayed, in the middle of his vengeful mission against the Conservative government, leaked the story.

When it appeared in print, Aitken sued. He could have settled the action before it got to court, but chose not to. His performance was assured, polished and full of lies. What shocked even some of his friends afterwards was the discovery that he was fully prepared to invent false statements about the role of his wife and teenage daughter in the affair. The High Court defeat brought humiliation and public opprobrium as well as the ominous prospect of a criminal investigation into perjury. Aitken announced that he and Lolicia, who had sat beside him day after day in court, were getting divorced .

As the days have gone by, the Aitken story has seen even more twists and turns. First there was Aitken's assertion that many of his assets belonged, in fact, to his wife and her family and thus should go to her as part of the divorce settlement. This also meant, of course, that The Guardian and Granada TV, to whom Aitken owed pounds 2m in legal costs, would not be able to get their hands on the cash. Thus when his home in Sandwich, Kent, overlooking the Channel and Royal St George's golf course, was sold for around pounds 500,000 it appeared to belong to a Panamanian company, set up by his wife's grandmother when she had bought the house for him and Lolicia. Even the car he uses in London, according to Aitken, belongs to his wife.

Then came his renewed interest in Christianity and an Alpha course (lessons in Christian basics) which he took at Holy Trinity Brompton, in west London. At the same time, efforts were being made to repair his tarnished image. A belated explanation for the Paris visit was touted around Fleet Street and eventually run by The Daily Telegraph. He claimed that he'd been on a secret mission for HMG to inform the Saudis about Iranian submarine movements.

This was dismissed by both Saudi and British sources. But the idea that he had been involved in some kind of noble self-sacrifice still lingered among some of his friends. Wait until the court case, they would say; the truth will out.

In court at the Old Bailey yesterday there were, of course, no great revelations. Instead, in a brief, subdued hearing in a cold courtroom, Aitken pleaded guilty and swept away the tatters that were left of his dreams of public life. Aitken's hubris, of course, makes it hard for him to accept this as his own fault. Even now he sees himself as a great man brought down by lesser mortals. He told a friend recently that he recognised himself in some lines by Andrew Marvell, about Charles the First as he walked towards the scaffold: "He nothing little did or mean upon that memorable scene."

Perhaps a more apt epitaph would be Aitken's own for Richard Nixon, a man he admired so much he wrote his biography, After Watergate. These, too, are words destined to haunt Aitken: "Even the most generous explanations for his conduct do not bring him exculpation. In his frenzied efforts to fight his way out of the quicksand ... he made himself guilty of ... deceit, negligence, bad judgement, mendacity, amorality and concealment."