Aitken admits: `One more scandal and I'm finished'

Confidential memo goes astray and reveals Cabinet minister's fears for his future
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The Independent Online
JONATHAN AITKEN, the Treasury Chief Secretary, has admitted to his closest advisers that his career is hanging by a thread.

A confidential memo written on Wednesday by Patrick Robertson, Mr Aitken's 26-year-old public relations adviser and a friend of the leaders of the Conservative right, quotes from a meeting with the minister earlier in the day.

"I completely understand your primary concern," wrote Mr Robertson, "which is that one more bad story will break the camel's back."

The meeting was held the day after Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, reopened the controversy about alleged breaches of arms embargo by the BMARC weapons company, of which Mr Aitken was a non- executive director between September 1988 and March 1990. Referring to intelligence reports from the 1980s, Mr Heseltine said that the final destination for BMARC's naval cannon "could well have been Iran". Mr Aitken told the Commons in March that he did not know of weapons going to Iran.

Mr Robertson's memo, sent in error to the wrong fax number and later passed to the Independent on Sunday, reveals that Mr Aitken considered making a press statement on Thursday or Friday which would have been a "pre-emptive strike" against newspapers "sniffing around" for a "nasty story" this weekend. The statement was to be "a very strong attack upon the media".

But Mr Robertson, the founder of the Bruges group of Tory Eurosceptics, and also PR man for the wedding of the Pakistan cricket star Imran Khan and Sir James Goldsmith's daughter Jemima, said the tactic would fail. The only way to stop a tabloid story, he advised, was for the minister "to talk to the other person involved".

The Chief Secretary was persuaded to withdraw his proposed statement after Mr Robertson told him: "I still believe that your fundamental problem is and will continue to be BMARC. The statement does nothing to reassure on this score.

"I am as certain as I can be that if you issue the statement in its current form you will be forced to resign within days."

On 11 April Mr Aitken staged a high-profile press conference where he vowed to start a fight against "the cancer of bent and twisted journalism" with the "sword of truth" and the "shield of British fair play".

His challenge followed allegations in the Independent that BMARC was engaged in the sale of arms to Iran in the 1980s. Its immediate cause were claims by Granada Television's World in Action programme and the Guardian that the minister had tried to arrange girls for the entourage of a Saudi prince staying at a Berkshire health farm. Mr Aitken has denied the allegations and issued writs against both organisations.

In his memo, Mr Robertson said that instead of once again confronting the press openly, the minister should use "informal discussions with editors, warnings of legal action and a number of other things" to fight any stories which existed.

Mr Robertson emphasised that it was the Conservative political establishment, not the media, which needed to be wooed. "The only audience that matters, in my view, is the PM, the Cabinet, your colleagues in Parliament and your constituency. At all costs we must keep them on board."

Mr Robertson's memo was meant to be faxed to Paul Raynes, Mr Aitken's private secretary at the Treasury, on Wednesday evening. But Mr Robertson's PR firm, Taskforce Communications, which he set up with Cecil Parkinson, the former Conservative Party chairman, made a mistake.

Instead of going to Whitehall, the memo went to the fax machine of David Scholefield, a 48-year-old arts producer from New Zealand, who now lives in central London.

The following morning, Mr Scholefield received a faxed message "to whom it may concern" from a member of Taskforce staff, asking for the return of the fax. Shortly afterwards, a caller left a message on his answering machine, again asking for the fax to be returned and giving Mr Robertson's name and mobile phone number.

Mr Scholefield said: "There is no way I know that an ordinary member of the public can find my name and phone number - which is ex-directory - from my fax number. I don't think that can be done legally. I'm thinking about going to the police."

n The memo in full and Robertson profile, page 3; the man from BMARC: Gerald James profile, page 25

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