Mystery player suspected of swinging final deal

CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

A key role in awarding the Ministry of Defence's pounds 2.5bn attack helicopter contract to Westland is believed to have been played by David Hart, the shadowy, right-wing millionaire businessman and "independent adviser" to members of the Cabinet.

According to sources close to the losers, British Aerospace and GEC, Mr Hart, in his role as adviser to first Malcolm Rifkind at the MoD, then his successor, Michael Portillo, has always favoured the Westland Apache.

It had been tried and tested in the Gulf war, was the best "military" option - the Army had always wanted the Apache - and was not "European" like the BAe Tiger to be built with Eurocopter of France and Germany. Mr Hart's support for the US, claimed the losers, swung the contract Apache's way.

As another bout of intrigue swirled around him at Westminster, Mr Hart fuelled the mystery by saying nothing, declaring he could speak - provided he had the prior clearance of the Secretary of State.

Assessing just how much power this maverick property developer cum ideologue really possesses - he shot to fame during the 1984 miners' strike when he emerged as a link man between Baroness Thatcher and the coal board - is difficult to gauge. Whitehall legend has him popping in and out of minister's offices, especially those of Messrs Rifkind and Portillo, writing pivotal speeches, being the brains behind the defence cuts. Others, including those close to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, play down his role.

Mr Hart is not afraid to put pen to paper. An article he wrote in the Spectator two years ago is widely believed to have fired the decisive shot in the battle between the Treasury and the MoD over spending cuts. Certainly, after yesterday, it was prescient. Headlined "Not Enough Bang For Our Bucks", the piece was an indictment of everything Mr Hart thought wrong with the MoD: too much top brass; too much interference by politicians; not enough emphasis on creating a fighting machine. Our defence budget is seven times larger than Israel's, yet that small country has more combat aircraft, main battle tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and artillery pieces than we do, wrote Mr Hart.

It was after this blast, which must have been music to Mr Portillo's ears over at the Treasury, that MoD houses began to be sold, officer ranks cut back and redundant bases off-loaded.

The article also gave a clear indication of where Mr Hart stood on Apache. "The British Army has no modern battlefield helicopters," he thundered. "In the hands of US forces, the Apache graphically demonstrated its worth on the road to Basra."

Although the BAe Tiger did not get a mention, the Eurofighter, a similar project, did. This was a "political rather than a military aircraft", derided Mr Hart, who went on to accuse BAe of making "specious claims" of its worth. Yesterday, the true blue soldier got his way.

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