and TIM KELSEY
Fighting for his career, Jonathan Aitken last night threatened to use the "sword of truth" and the "shield of British fair play" to block allegations about his business links with Saudi princes.
In an extraordinary performance, with the clear backing of the Conservative Party, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced he had issued a writ against the Guardian, whose editor, Alan Rusbridger, insisted: "We stand by our story."
Mr Aitken threatened similar action against Granada TV whose World in Action programme nevertheless last night went ahead with allegations about Mr Aitken's links with the Saudis.
The programme alleged that Mr Aitken did not tell his constituency about his relationship with Saudi Arabians, and that he had a business relationship with a Saudi company which was not declared in the Commons Register of Members' Interests.
World In Action also claimed to have evidence that a Saudi prince paid £1m to help Mr Aitken buy a health farm in Berkshire. It alleged that Mr Aitken tried to arrange for women to entertain a member of the Saudi royal family who visited the hydro.
Reading from a carefully-prepared script and using an auto-cue, at Tory Central Office in Westminster, Mr Aitken condemned the "cancer of bent and twisted journalism" and offered a detailed rebuttal of the allegations.
Mr Aitken denied as "lies" and "an outrageous falsehood" allegations that he had tried to arrange girls for the prince, and wrongly failed to declare a directorship of a second company, owned by a Lebanese family, in the register of members' interests.
Company records disclose that Mr Aitken was a director of the company, Future Management Services, while the bank of which he was then chairman and a substantial shareholder made a loan to a subsidiary of FMS. The bank, Aitken Hume, also handled the company's accounts.
The new allegations follow disclosures by the Independent that Mr Aitken had been director of a British arms company which exported weapons to Iran in breach of government and UN embargoes. Despite evidence that he had been at board meetings when details of the order for naval guns were tabled for discussion, he said he had no knowledge that the arms were exported to Iran. This was disputed by other directors of the company.
The former minister for defence procurement said he had disclosed to the Ministry of Defence a banking connection with Fouad and Ziad Makhzoumi, who were asking about defence sales in Lebanon.
He said he was confident that he had acted entirely in accordance with the register of members' interests in not recording the fact he had been an unpaid director of FMS.
Mr Aitken also denied as misrepresentations reports that he received the gift of a Jaguar XJ6, and disguised visits to the Middle East from his constituents.
He said the matron of the Inglewood Health Hydro, who alleged he inquired about girls for Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, son of King Fahd, had been dismissed for dishonesty. But the programme countered that accusation with further interviews with former staff at the health farm.
As he made his statement he was watched by his wife anddaughter, and refused to answer questions over details in his statement. He grimly brushed aside journalists who asked whether he would resign to fight to clear his name, as one other minister had.
After reading his statement, Mr Aitken, holding hands with his wife and daughter, walked from Conservative Central Office across Smith Square to their home in an elegant terrace in Lord North Street.
Before his Central Office statement, Downing Street said Mr Aitken had the Prime Minister's "full confidence". Tory MPs believe Mr Major's own position could be destabilised if he lost a minister of Mr Aitken's seniority.
It was seen as an attempt by the Government to halt the continued debilitating attacks on ministers over allegations of "sleaze", which have led to 17 resignations during John Major's administration. Alan Duncan, one of the "victims" who resigned as a ministerial aide, welcomed Mr Aitken's stand. Other right-wing Tory MPs said the Government could not afford to lose Mr Aitken. "Aitken and Heseltine are the only ones in the Cabinet with any business experience," said a senior member of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs.
Mr Aiken could still face a grilling by the members' intersts committee of the Commons. The committee will be asked by Labour MPs to investigate.
The Aitken affair, page 3Reuse content