Aitken hits back in sleaze battle

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Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, yesterday seized his first opportunity to issue a solemn denial in the Commons that he had 'lied' over who paid the bill for his stay at the Ritz in Paris last September.

As the escalating warfare between the Fayed family and the Government led to highly-charged exchanges in the Commons, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, John Major and the rest of the Cabinet unequivocally backed the Chief Secretary against what Mr Aitken called the 'scurrilous allegations' levelled against him.

Mr Aitken quoted a letter written earlier in the day by Sir Robin to Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, who had complained that Mr Aitken had quoted 'selectively' in correspondence with the Cabinet Secretary from a letter from the Ritz about Mr Aitken's bill, which implied that Mr Aitken's wife had paid only half of the bill. Sir Robin asserted that he had had the full Ritz letter about the bill's payment since the spring, along with 'other documentation' relating to the bill and explicitly rejected the claim that Mr Aitken had 'lied' or 'misled' him.

Tory sensitivity over the series of embarrassing claims about ministers' and MPs' behaviour was underlined by the announcement by Angela Rumbold, a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, that she was resigning from a company of political lobbyists - an interest which she had properly registered.

The company, Decision Makers Ltd, was heavily involved in the campaign for Ebbsfleet, Kent, to be chosen as the site of the international station for the high-speed Channel Tunnel link, rather than Stratford in east London.

Earlier, Mr Major attacked the Labour leader, Tony Blair, for seeking to air 'unsubstantiated gossip' about the allegations of ministerial and parliamentary impropriety. However, Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, and the orginator of the allegations, complained that he had not been asked for information during Sir Robin's recent enquiry.

Mr Major told the Commons that the Downing Street note of the conversation at which the allegations against four ministers, including Mr Aitken, were orginally made, had now been passed to the Metropolitan Police by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr Blair argued that unless Mr Major requires either that Lord Nolan's inquiry investigate individual cases or that the Tory members of the Commons Privileges Committee agree to meet in public, he will not be able to contain the storm over the allegations about benefits and rewards paid to Tory politicians.

Mr Blair said: 'You will only get a grip on this problem when you understand there has to be a proper method of investigating the allegations of Mr Fayed in which the public has confidence, and that means an open, full investigation.'

Mr Major said there was now no doubt about Mr Blair: 'We now know where we are with you. We know precisely what way you plan to play politics. You say you don't believe the allegations are substantiated - yet still you are prepared in here to peddle them.'

But the extent of the still unanswered questions about Mr Aitken's bill were underlined by a photocopy of the bill of Said Mohamed Ayas, a friend of Mr Aitken and his daughter's godfather, which confirms the full 8,010 franc cost of Mr Aitken's Ritz bill was originally debited to Mr Ayas's account.

The bill also shows a credit for 4,257 francs (pounds 510) - the amount which the Ritz letter suggests Mrs Aitken paid.

Sir Robin said he was satisified, 'despite the discrepancies in the billing', that the Ritz account had been paid by Mr Aitken and his wife.

Number 10 showed no sign of releasing the extra 'documentation' referred to by Sir Robin.

Some senior Tories hope the establishment of the Nolan enquiry could 'draw a line' under the effectiveness of Opposition attacks on 'sleaze'. It emerged last night that one of the 10 members of the standing committee under Lord Nolan is likely to be Peter Shore, a former Labour minister.

Despite a growing conviction in Westminster that the 'intermediary' who originally took Mr Fayed's allegations to Mr Major was Brian Hitchen, editor of the Sunday Express, Downing Street resolutely refused to comment.

Further reports, pages 2 and 3 (Photograph omitted)