'Idiot' Aitken rejected libel deal life-line

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Jonathan Aitken the former Cabinet minister spectacularly ruined by the collapse of his libel case against the Guardian on Friday, rejected a dramatic face-saving offer that would have protected his name, his marriage and his fortune.

The deal, brokered by the Tory peer Lord Saatchi acting as a friend of Mr Aitken's, would have ended his libel action against the newspaper and Granada Television on the eve of the general election, with neither side admitting guilt, or any court case taking place.

Mr Aitken, who yesterday had disappeared from public view, turned down the deal, and now faces a wrecked marriage, pounds 2m legal costs and possible prosecution for perjury after documents produced in court showed he lied on oath.

Lord Saatchi - the advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi - had approached the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, for the second time, 10 days before the general election on 1 May. Through Lord Saatchi, Mr Rusbridger offered a formula that would save face on both sides: neither would admit guilt, and each would pay their own costs.

"I thought he would settle. I could not believe he was going to fight. It just seemed idiotic," said Mr Rusbridger yesterday. Mr Aitken's chutzpah ended in humiliation last week when George Carman QC produced evidence proving that he had lied on oath about a weekend stay in the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

If Mr Aitken had accepted Mr Rusbridger's offer, the announcement of a settlement would have appeared in two short paragraphs in the Guardian. Mr Aitken would have had to pay his own costs of about pounds 500,000 to pounds 600,000, but, said Mr Rusbridger: "It would have gone away." Now he has a huge legal bill and his reputation is gone.

The revelation of Lord Saatchi's role in the affair makes it clear Mr Aitken was intent on an astonishing gamble. "An arch-manipulator like him could have made a settlement look good, but something drove him on. He wanted to play for high stakes. I can't see any other explanation," said Mr Rusbridger.

Mr Aitken's determination to press the libel action was so great he incited his wife, Lolicia, and his daughter, Victoria, to sign statements that were presented in the High Court last week, asserting that they had travelled to Paris by ferry and train and then taken a train to Geneva.

Mr Aitken's case collapsed when investigators for the Guardian proved Lolicia and Victoria Aitken flew direct to Geneva and never joined him at the Ritz. Last Thursday, Mrs Aitken announced she was leaving her husband. None of this need have become public knowledge.

The advertising tycoon first approached Mr Rusbridger a year ago, and arranged a meeting between the editor and the politician at Wiltons restaurant in Jermyn Street, London. Mr Aitken told Mr Rusbridger of his concern to clear his name. Mr Rusbridger said the Guardian could not apologise or pay Mr Aitken's costs, but a face-saving formula was on offer. "He did not come back," said Mr Rusbridger.

One of Mr Aitken's closest friends, the Tory MP and diarist Alan Clark, said yesterday after reading full accounts of the collapse of the trial: "I wouldn't have been so generous in defending Mr Aitken on Newsnight had I been aware of the way he used his daughter during the trial."

Aitken profile, page 25