Aitken, convicted liar and man of faith, prepares to meet his jailer

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JONATHAN AITKEN took a carefully planned last supper with close friends and family as he prepared for an almost inevitable prison sentence today. It will be the final humiliating chapter in the dramatic downfall of a man who once boasted incredible wealth and was tipped as a future prime minister.

Aitken, who fell from grace after locking swords with The Guardian and World in Action, spent most of yesterday with his solicitors. Despite reports that they were planning to launch a last-minute attempt to save him from incarceration, friends said the former minister had long got used to the idea that he would go to jail.

The disgraced Conservative, they said, had always insisted he would stay to face the music, despite some friends' advice that he should flee the country. He appeared stoical as he returned to his Westminster home, accompanied by a former parliamentary colleague, Michael Alison, to spend his last hours of freedom with his son and daughters.

Today he will leave the Georgian house and exchange its plush interior for a tiny cell at Wormwood Scrubs.

Last night his mother, Lady Aitken, said: "We are very strong. We have had a long time to think about this. Tomorrow we face it and take whatever is coming. What else can you do? Jonathan has been remarkable and he has had tremendous support from friends."

Lord Pearson of Rannoch insisted his old friend had long known he would be jailed. "He has pretty well known for two years and he has been prepared to go though with it, as he must do. When this began, some of his friends said `Disappear to Australia', which he could have done, but it never occurred to him. He wanted to plead guilty straight away but that would have left Victoria absolutely exposed. He pleaded guilty as soon as the case collapsed against her."

Lord Pearson said Aitken relied heavily on his faith to get him through the difficult years. "He has a deep and genuine faith, which of course raises the question - why did he lie and why did he get Vicky to sign that statement? The only answer there is that he was so anxious to nail The Guardian and World in Action. I think he thought the means justified the ends."

Nevertheless, Lord Pearson added that his devout faith made it even harder for friends to understand how he could have taken an oath and lied. "It makes it even more painful and inexplicable. I think he made a very, very bad mistake and he is to pay a very high price."

Aitken, 56, is to be sentenced today at the Old Bailey for perjury and perverting the course of justice during his failed libel case against The Guardian and Granada television, charges which he admitted.

The former millionaire has been declared bankrupt. Bailiffs arrived at his home last week to recoup some of his pounds 2.4m debts. Lord Pearson added: "This all has strong elements of a Greek tragedy."

Experts believe the former Privy Councillor could face a sentence of two to four years - beginning at Wormwood Scrubs before being transferred to Ford open prison. His lawyers are expected to argue that he has suffered greatly already, his "chronic" asthma making him unable to withstand a long prison term.