Aitken Sentenced: Humbling of a high-roller who gambled and lost

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO THE HUMBLING of the aloof and glamourous Jonathan Aitken, born into the heart of the establishment and once tipped to hold the highest public office, is now complete.

For his many detractors, Aitken is the consummate chancer who ran out of chances. Only the most reckless gambler, after all, would have so pompously and publicly accepted that his "destiny" in 1995 was "to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism ... with the simple sword of truth", knowing full well that he was lying about who paid his bill at the Paris Ritz.

And only a man of overwhelming vanity and selfishness would have forced his teenage daughter, Victoria, and his wife, Lolicia, to lie to conceal his own perjury.

Insisting Aitken only has himself to blame for his downfall - he has been declared bankrupt, lost his wife, career, reputation and now his freedom - people point to all the advantages with which he started.

He was born, 57 years ago, into a privileged and wealthy family, sitting pretty at the centre of political life. His father, Sir Bill, was a Conservative MP. His great uncle was the media baron, Lord Beaverbrook. He took the usual establishment route in education - Eton and then Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of the former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont. Lord Lamont of Lerwick says that even then he thought Aitken was destined for the highest political office. But while he had the connections, Aitken did not have the personal fortune that usually goes with them. His tendency to recklessness, political commentators believe, may have been first fuelled by Beaverbrook's decision to leave him out of his will so he would be forced to stand on his own two feet.

In the 1970s he set about creating the fortune he may have resented was not his by birth right. He built up extensive business contacts in the Middle East and became a millionaire, though questions have always been asked about the precise origins of his wealth.

In 1974 he was elected Conservative MP for Thanet East. But he languished on the back benches during Margaret Thatcher's reign. The reason, rumour had it, was that Aitken - who had dated and dropped Mrs Thatcher's daughter, Carol - had made Carol cry.

It was 1992 before John Major promoted Aitken into government as defence procurement minister. But his belated ascendancy was doomed the night he stayed free at the Ritz in 1993.

Though Aitken's family is establishment it is far from conventional. His mother Lady Aitken, now 83, caused a scandal when she ran off with an artist when she was just 18. And when Aitken decided to take LSD in the 1970s for an article in a newspaper it was Lady Aitken who recorded every detail of his hallucinations and regression into childhood.

Aitken still has powerful friends willing to stand by him. Lord Pearson of Rannoch described Aitken's demise as having "all the strong elements of a Greek tragedy". And Sir Malcolm Rifkind said his former cabinet colleague was a "changed man" who recognised he had "behaved foolishly" and was genuinely remorseful.

Little of that washes with the public. Witness the widespread delight when Mr Aitken's Rolex watch was seized by bailiffs last week trying to recover some of pounds 2m he owes in legal fees. A declaration of bankruptcy is ridiculed, when he continues to live in the pounds 1.5m home in Westminster now in his wife's name.

Objectively, his political career is surely beyond resurrection. But yesterday Michael Brown, a former Conservative junior whip, recalled a sympathetic letter he received from Mr Aitken in 1994 when a newspaper implicated him in a "homosexual love triangle". Aitken recalled when scandal had "knocked off course" his own life. He reassured Mr Brown that he, like him, would be "one of the comebackers". And Aitken offered this inspirational gem from Richard Nixon: "Failure is not falling down. Failure is falling down and not getting up again to fight back."