The Aitken affair: Glittering prizes out of grasp

The wilderness years
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The Independent Online
JONATHAN AITKEN had the good looks, the family connections and the intellect to take the highest prizes that the Conservative Party could offer, but the glittering career was flawed.

Some of his friends said his determination to make his own way without the Beaverbrook millions led him into the Arab business dealings which were to prove his downfall.

His first big money-spinning venture was with the company Slater Walker (Middle East) Ltd, and there also were banking connections with the Middle East.

Although he won his Thanet seat in 1974, he languished on the backbenches for 18 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was implacably opposed to making the Tory young turk one of her ministers throughout her 11 years in office.

He was a patrician Tory, and a member of the "blue chip" set, whom she gradually weeded out of her government.

Having been regarded as the Commons pin-up for two decades, Mr Aitken, a Eurosceptic, joined forces with another troublesome thorn in Thatcher's side, Sir Teddy Taylor, who acted like her conscience on Europe from the backbenches.

Together Aitken and Sir Teddy formed a two-man ginger group to oppose the perceived slide towards Europe, leaving Aitken oddly forgotten on the fringes of the Tory Party in the Commons.

It was not until two years after Mrs Thatcher's resignation in 1992, that he was plucked from the backbenches and appointed a minister by John Major.

Why did the then prime minister lift Aitken into his government? He was appointed - from the relative obscurity of the backbenches - the Minister for Defence Procurement, and put in charge of the arms deals worth billions of pounds to Britain.

This was a mystery to many colleagues.

Some ministers privately claimed the Arab princes in Saudi Arabia had made it clear to Downing Street they would prefer not deal with Malcolm Rifkind, the then defence secretary, a Jew, in the sale of Tornado jet fighters to their country.

Aitken, who had impeccable Arab contacts, was the obvious choice to sell arms in the Middle East.

It was the job that led to his downfall.