Chief Secretary leads Commons counter-attack

BY COLIN BROWN

Chief Political Correspondent

Brushing aside calls for his resignation, Jonathan Aitken yesterday led a counter-attack in the Commons over allegations that he had been on the board of a company which broke government guidelines over the export of arms to Iran.

Tory MPs cheered and waved their order papers when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury rejected a challenge by Andrew Smith, Labour's Treasury spokesman, over whether he had the confidence of the country to remain in office.

He accused Gerald James, the former chairman of Astra, BMARC's parent company, of being "bitter" and in an "unholy alliance" with the Independent over the disclosures that the company, of which Mr Aitken was a director, had exported arms to Iran via Singapore. He also denied any knowledge of the exports, codenamed Project Lisi.

Reading from a prepared statement, Mr Aitken said: "Yes I do and I believe so because the facts are clear and I welcome this opportunity to reiterate again, since you have challenged me.

"Let me make it crystal clear that at no board meeting of the company I was on the board of seven years ago and in no board paper of that company was I ever given the slightest indication or information that could suggest that the company's wholly legitimate contract with Singapore might subsequently result in components being shipped to Iran. My view of these matters has now been publicly supported by four former directors of the company, including General Isles who was responsible for the contract, including the managing director of the company, and so the deposed and bitter chairman [Gerald James] is now isolated on his own in making irresponsible comments."

He added: "What we are seeing here is an unholy alliance of a failed chairman and a failing newspaper and it's no reason to challenge my integrity or my position in this government." However, the challenges continued as Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham, called on Mr Aitken to resign. The Chief Secretary tersely replied: "no."

John Major also faced a call to sack Mr Aitken during Prime Minister's questions in the Commons. His office earlier had said that Mr Aitken had Mr Major's support, but the Prime Minister refused to go further in the House when challenged by Nigel Griffiths, Labour MP for Edinburgh South.

"I believe Mr Aitken dealt with that matter very forcibly and to great acclaim from most of the House just a few moments ago. He has made his position absolutely clear. No evidence has been found to counter that either by the Independent newspaper or anyone else."

The row spilled over into questions to Tony Newton, the Leader of the House. Ann Taylor, Labour's Shadow Leader of the House, underlined Labour's frontbench demands for an inquiry into Mr Aitken's involvement. She said some issues had not been clarified and told Mr Newton: "Will you ensure there is an immediate, specific and independent inquiry to look at these new allegations [so] that Parliament can learn and then assess the full facts surrounding this case."

Mr Newton said Mr Aitken had made two "very full" statements on Wednesday about his role and had spoken to the House. "I certainly do not intended to add to what they have said."

Earlier, Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow and a veteran campaigner for probity in public affairs, asked what had happened to the "doctrine of ministerial responsibility" under which ministers were expected to resign, pointing out that the late Nicholas Ridley had complimented Customs and Excise for their pursuit of the export of arms to Iraq and the seizure of the supergun, which is at the centre of the Scott inquiry. David Heathcoat- Amory, Paymaster General, said nothing had happened to the doctrine. As for criticism or blame that may accrue from the inquiry, "we must await the report".

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