Double blow for reeling Tories

n Aitken faces new allegations n Minister's aide quits over `three- in-a-bed romp'
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The Independent Online
Tory misery was compounded today as potentially damaging new allegations about Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, followed hot on the heels of yesterday's resignation of an MP from his government post after a sex scandal.

A report in today's Guardian newspaper makes allegations about Mr Aitken's personal and business life and his relationship with members of the Saudi royal family.

The new claims, which are due to be aired in tonight's World in Action programme, refer in particular to arrangements that the minister is said to have tried to make for members of a Saudi entourage during their stay at a health farm in England.

The new threat to Mr Aitken's career follows revelations in the Independent that he was a director of an arms company that was exporting naval guns to Iran in breach of a United Nations and British Government arms embargo.

Last year, the minister was also embroiled in a long drawn-out public controversy over the payment of a hotel bill.

Mr Aitken was unavailable for comment last night. A Downing Street spokesman said that the minister was unlikely to make a statement until after the programme had been broadcast. The Treasury would not comment, describing the latest allegations about Mr Aitken as "a personal matter".

Meanwhile, yesterday's News of the World devoted five pages to claims about a "three-in-a-bed-romp" involving Tory MP Richard Spring, another man and a woman. Mr Spring immediatley resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Details of what were said to be the ministerial aide's private thoughts on public figures were also reported by the newspaper.

Already marked out as ministerial material by his appointment as Sir Patrick's unpaid bag carrier, Mr Spring's departure comes three years after being elected as MP for Bury St Edmunds in 1992 with a majority of more than 18,000. Sir Patrick said he had accepted the resignation "with great regret".

The Spring episode brings to 17 the number of exits from government for non-policy reasons during John Major's premiership. It sent further shock waves through a party reeling from a virtual wipe-out in the Scottish local elections and reports of hundreds of Tories planning to stand as independents in the 4 May contests in England and Wales. Mr Spring's undignified end can only exacerbate the bad publicity and disunity which senior ministers have blamed for the electoral disaster. John Townend, a senior right-winger and chairman of the Tory backbench finance committee, called for a privacy law to restrain the press.

But Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage and of the Tory liberal left, has given an impression of unease about introducing such a law, despite preparatory workcarried out by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay.

As Tories braced themselves for a fresh outbreak of allegations of "sleaze" - in the wake of Mr Major's insistence in last week's Panorama interview that members of government should "behave" - ministers rallied round to quash expectations that the requisite 33 backbench Tories were now prepared to write to Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, calling for a leadership contest. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, told BBC1's Breakfast With Frost: "If it weren't for John Major we wouldn't be in government today. He won that general election. I think's he's going to take us to victory in the next general election too."

Lord Parkinson, the former Tory party chairman, poured scorn on suggestions in a Sunday newspaper that Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, would be prepared to run in a leadership race if Mr Major quits or is forced out. "I think pointing to Gillian Shephard in particular is the best evidence of how nonsensical and thin that story is."

There is speculation that once the 33 MPs hadmade their feeling privately known to Sir Marcus, Mr Major would be unable to stall a contest even though party rules say such an election should be held in the autumn, within 28 days of the Queen's Speech. A ministerial colleague and friend of the Prime Minister insisted, however, that there was "no chance whatsoever" of Mr Major acceding to demands for a contest soon after the May elections.

Roll call of departed, page 3