The most rotten in the barrel

Profile: Jonathan Aitken: Beneath the charm lurked a darkness that gave free rein to the deepest treachery. By Chris Blackhurst
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Jonathan Aitken was a familiar figure in old-fashioned schoolboy stories. He was a bounder, a rogue, the cad who could never be trusted. Tall, dark and handsome, he charmed and cheated his way from one adventure to the next. Today, words like bounder, rogue and cad will not do. The language we use to describe people like Aitken is altogether cruder and harsher.

In comics the cad got involved in minor scrapes and japes. In real life Aitken occupied a commanding position in the worlds of high finance and political power. He represented several constituencies: wealthy wheelers and dealers of Middle Eastern origin, members of the Saudi royal family, his tight circle of sleek family and friends, the right-wing of the Conservative Party and, somewhere in the middle of that lot, the good people of Thanet South in Kent.

Even Flashman in Tom Brown's Schooldays, the most famous of the fictional breed, would have been appalled by Aitken. He might have thought about it, but not even Flashman would incite his 17-year-old daughter to commit perjury and risk jail, as Aitken did last week.

When the details of Aitken's behaviour emerged on Friday, the general reaction was one of shock and anger. Of all the incidents loosely gathered together under the rubric of Tory sleaze, this was the lowest of the low: selling your family to save yourself.

Friends of Aitken murmured that it was a tragedy, the most spectacular plunge of any British politician since John Profumo lied to the Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler in 1963.

Two years ago Aitken was in the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and being talked about as a future Tory leader. The Tories would lose the election, so the thinking went, and John Major would be replaced by a right-winger who could appeal to floating voters. Aitken was to be that man. In the end, the only role he played in the leadership election was to lend the kitchen in his Westminster house at 8 Lord North Street to Michael Howard's failed campaign.

When he lost his seat on 1 May, it was an unexpected and rare reverse. But, so the thinking went, equally illustrious MPs had lost seats too. He would annihilate the Guardian and Granada TV in his libel action. After that, he would fry other fish, like this newspaper and its sister paper, the Independent, which broke the story of his directorship of BMARC, a company which sent guns to Iran in breach of a United Nations embargo - and against both of which writs are still active. Totally vindicated, Jonathan, so his friends supposed, would be back before long.

HE WILL never come back, and few will be saddened. One avowed enemy of his - actually a distant member of his own family - declared on Friday that it was not if, but when. "I've just known all along, he is guilty, but he is so smooth. People are hoodwinked by that."

Until last week's courtroom drama, when George Carman QC produced evidence proving that Aitken had lied, it was no secret among those close to the case that the Guardian and Granada were gloomy. They knew they were right but they lacked the killer blow. Not for the first time, Aitken seemed destined to wriggle free. Nobody in British public life in recent times, not even Neil Hamilton, has had a career so dogged with controversy as Aitken. It is almost as if he went looking for it.

Of course, Aitken and some of his uncomprehending high-society friends will blame the press. But it was not the press that forced him to make Carol Thatcher cry when he ended their affair, or caused Anna Ford to throw a glass of white burgundy in his face at a party over his management of TV-am.

It was not the press that forced him to have an affair with a prostitute shortly after his wife gave birth to twins. And it was not the press which suggested that he should not disclose to the Independent Broadcasting Authority that his shares in TV-am were in fact owned by his rich Saudi friends.

Nor were journalists to blame for his acceptance of a pounds 10,000-a-year post on the board of the defence company BMARC. Journalists did not make him lie about his maintaining contact with his Arab business associates while still a government minister - against all Whitehall rules.

In his diaries, his close friend Alan Clark described Aitken as "my old friend and standby for many a dirty trick". Clark, who was one of those calling Aitken's demise a tragedy on Friday, went on to describe a remarkably shabby business in which Aitken and Clark, two Old Etonians, encouraged a Labour backbencher, another Old Etonian, to ask a damaging question about a fellow Tory.

Likewise, no journalist was hovering in the background, goading him to lie to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, about his stay at the Ritz Hotel, which he claimed was not paid for by one of his Arab associates. If he goes to jail for perjury, it will not have been the press that sent him there. It was hubris.

Jonathan Aitken's whole life is one of contradiction, of half-truths, feints and, in the end, downright dishonesty. He likes to say he was not born - in 1942 - with a silver spoon in his mouth. Yet his father, a Tory MP, was a knight and his grandfather was a peer, Lord Rugby. His great uncle was Max Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born owner of Express Newspapers. Not so much silver as silver gilt.

Jonathan and Beaverbrook did not get on: he once confided that the unhappiest period of his life was spent at Cherkley, the Beaver's country home in Surrey, but that did not stop him going there or seeking favours from the great man. But Beaverbrook did not leave him a penny in his will. When his own father died, Aitken said he was left only pounds 5,000. Actually, that was a handy sum in the early 1960s, and there were other family interests in Canada.

At Oxford, he persuaded Harold Macmillan to speak at the University Conservative Association, which he chaired. He spent his long vacation writing speeches for a close friend of his father and his political patron, Selwyn Lloyd, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

He read law but broke the law by smoking pot and taking LSD. He mixed with the crusty old Establishment and held wild parties with a bevy of adoring, beautiful female admirers. Always, though, there was another side. In public, suave and louche; on his own, private and scheming.

Occasionally, the two collided. He went to dinner in 1970 with General Henry Alexander, who showed the young blade a classified report suggesting Britain was aiding the Nigeria war effort against the rebel Biafrans. Alexander said it was shown to him in strictest confidence. Aitken passed it to the Sunday Telegraph.

He also gave a copy to Sir Hugh Fraser, the Tory MP, pro-Biafran and a friend. Nothing is ever what it seems with Aitken: he may have been a friend but that did not stop him having an affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, then Sir Hugh's wife.

There was a huge row when the Sunday Telegraph article appeared and Aitken was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. He blamed Alexander and he blamed Fraser, but not himself. Fortunately, the Establishment, in the form of Mr Justice Caulfield, rallied to his defence and he was acquitted. Not for the first time, better judges of character saw through him. At Thirsk and Malton, where he was due to stand as a Tory candidate, and General Alexander was the local party chairman, they took a dim view of his ruination of the good general's reputation. Aitken was one step ahead and withdrew his candidature before they rejected him.

HE worked for Jim Slater, the adventurous financier, and developed Slater Walker's Middle East operation. Onwards and upwards, he made it to the Commons, only to fall foul of someone else who could see through him. For a single Tory on the make there was one woman who stood out above all others: Carol, Mrs Thatcher's daughter. For Aitken, Carol became a passport to power. Unfortunately, that is all she was and the romance ended. Mrs Thatcher, famously, never forgave him.

During the wilderness years, while his other Tory chums were enjoying the trappings of ministerial success, Aitken set his sights elsewhere. The buccaneer made his fortune investing and fixing deals on behalf of his Arab friends. In politics, he said he was "anti-Palestine and pro- Israel". In business, he was pro-Arab, which meant being anti-Israel.

After a string of romances - Lady Antonia Fraser and Carol Thatcher were only two of the women who fell for his charms - he married Lolicia, the wife who finally refused to go along with his deception. She hosted parties for him, where he could further his business and political career. He went his way, she went hers, seeking spiritual comfort by later converting to Buddhism.

Contradiction heaped on contradiction. He was an adulterer who served as as churchwarden of St Margaret's Westminster and professed to be an active Christian. In 1980, Lolicia presented him with twins. It was a difficult birth and the babies nearly died. Aitken's reaction was to strike up an affair with a prostitute. He was to the right of the Tory party, yet Diane Abbott, the left-wing Labour MP, liked him so much she asked him to be godfather to her child.

Everything around him seemed to glitter, but in his mind there was darkness. That could have been written about his great hero, Richard Nixon, about whom Aitken wrote a well-regarded biography. Most people would have absorbed the lesson of Nixon. But Aitken was not like most people. He was much too arrogant for that.

Since we no longer use words like bounder, rogue and cad, other words are needed to describe him. In the language of our time, Jonathan Aitken is a total shit.