Aitken's friends rally to defend libel 'lies' put case for the defence

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The Independent Online
Friends of Jonathan Aitken, who is expected to return from abroad soon to face a Scotland Yard investigation into allegations of perjury, are suggesting a possible defence to explain why he lied over his secret trip to the Paris Ritz.

The former chief secretary to the Treasury and defence procurement minister had, they say, been publicly vilified while unable to answer the charges for complex personal and professional reasons.

There is strong indication, they say, that his ill-fated visit was on sensitive government business. There could also have been a secondary mission he was undertaking on behalf of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, with whom he has had a long standing relationship.

Mr Aitken is said to have lied under oath during his libel action against The Guardian newspaper and Granada Television about his stay at the Ritz in September l993. His pounds 1,000 bill for the stay had been paid by the Saudi Prince Mohammed - in contravention of the guidelines on ministerial conduct.

To cover this up, he was prepared to let his estranged wife, Lolicia, and daughter Victoria, perjure themselves.

Mr Aitken is believed to be in the United States where he is negotiating a book about the affair. His friends and allies, among them politicians and journalists who are in touch with him, present a different scenario involving secret government missions, the intelligence services, a mistress and an unreliable wife.

Mr Aitken had realised, after he had left the hotel, that it was a mistake to let the Saudis pay his bill, the friends say.

He had asked his wife Lolicia to travel from Geneva to Paris where she was seeing their daughter into a new school and pay the bill. She promised him that she had done this, and it was not until too late that he found out she had not, the friends suggest.

At first, Mr Aitken thought he could bluff it out, but he realised he had been put in an impossible position, say his friends. To protect the reputation of his wife and details of his official work in Paris, he withdrew the libel action.

There was, it is said, another embarrassing reason for his wanting to keep the Paris Ritz visit secret. He had spent the night with another woman during his stay.

Although Mr Aitken has a reputation as a philanderer, he did not want to add to the woes of a Tory government suffering a surfeit of sex scandals.

Mr Aitken's mother has claimed that her son had lied to protect his wife.

His close friend and former constituency chairman in Thanet South, Major John Thomas, subscribes to the view that just because Mr Aitken "lied does not mean he is guilty". Major Thomas has a letter from Mr Aitken's solicitor Richard Sykes saying the former minister had done what he had for entirely "honourable" reasons.

Another friend, a Tory politician, said: "What we have seen is one man being demonised. The truth, when it comes out, may show that there are explanations for what happened. They may be embarrassing explanations, but these are cock-ups rather than conspiracies."

Detectives investigating the perjury allegations are in touch with Mr Aitken's lawyers. They say they are waiting to see what Mr Aitken has to say to them. He will be interviewed under caution.