A ministerial career dogged by controversy

Aitken's exit: How persistent allegations about arms trade contacts added up to a big political embarrassment
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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspodent

From the word go Jonathan Aitken's short ministerial career was dogged by controversy.

He was a backbench MP for 18 years and it was always said Margaret Thatcher could never forgive him for having jilted her daughter, Carol, in the 1970s. High office appeared to have passed him by until John Major made him Minister for Defence Procurement in 1992.

Immediately eyebrows were raised. Mr Aitken, a friend and business associate of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, was thought by some to be too close to the biggest movers and shakers in the world arms trade.

It is those friendships and associations formed during his time in the backbench wilderness, when even he must have given up hope of landing high office, that have now brought about his downfall.

Initially his supporters saw them as a help rather than a hindrance. Britain was desperate to sell arms to the Arabs; Mr Aitken, with his excellent connections, appeared just the ticket. But in the past 18 months they have filled acres of newsprint and caused him political embarrassment.

His recent problems began with allegations in the Guardian that he had stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris in September 1993 and had his bill paid by the leading Saudi businessman Said Ayas. Other business associates of Mr Aitken, notably Wafic Said, an international Mr Fixit close to the Saudi government, were said to have been in the hotel at around the same time.

Mr Aitken strenuously denied the allegation and said that only part of the bill was paid by Mr Ayas. As soon as Mr Aitken realised the mistake, he said, he repaid Mr Ayas.

What should have been a simple issue of who paid the bill became ever more clouded in intrigue. He said his wife settled the bill; hotel staff claimed a secretary working for Mr Ayas paid it. Mr Aitken said he was taking his wife and daughter to his daughter's school in Switzerland; yet they apparently were not in the hotel. As for his friends reportedly being in the hotel at around the same time, with the exception of Mr Ayas he did not meet them.

Then in March this year the Independent revealed he had been a non-executive director of BMARC, an arms company which supplied naval guns to Iran in defiance of a United Nations embargo. The contract, codenamed Project Lisi, was mentioned in board papers distributed for board meetings attended by Mr Aitken. He denied knowing anything about Lisi and said he had no idea BMARC guns were going to Iran.

Gerald James, BMARC's former chairman, said otherwise. All the directors knew the weapons were going to Iran, said Mr James on BBC radio. It was a startling intervention. Again Mr Aitken chose to fight fire with fire, line by line. From the sidelines, his supporters sniped incorrectly that the Independent was in cahoots with the BBC, which he had accused of political bias a few days previously. On the main battleground he produced other directors of BMARC who rebutted Mr James's assertion. Even they however appeared not so sure under questioning. Major-General Donald Isles, a former military attache in Washington, conceded on BBC's Newsnight that there were rumours the guns were bound for Iran.

No sooner had that affair died down than the Guardian and World in Action took up the cudgels again with accusations about his relationship with members of the Saudi royal family and his business links with two Lebanese businessmen.

At a remarkable press conference, with his wife and daughter at his side, Mr Aitken announced he was suing. He declared: "If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it, I am ready for the fight."

The Tory hierarchy was delighted: at last one of their own was having the guts to take on the press that had made their lives hell ever since the Prime Minister announced his "back to basics" moral crusade.

It was heady stuff, but last month in a completely unexpected move, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, announced to a stunned House of Commons that there were grounds for believing BMARC's guns had gone to Iran. Suddenly Mr Aitken was on the ropes. Battered and bruised, with a powerful Commons committee promising an inquiry and having to spend increasing amounts of time on litigation, his condition worsened when a stray fax from his PR man was passed to the Independent on Sunday. One more story, it said, would be enough to finish him.