The Attack on Sleaze: MP maintains his business under wraps: Tim Kelsey looks at the controversial political progress of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken has been the target of newspaper investigations ever since he became an MP in 1974 and, more intensively, since he became a minister two years ago. He has repeatedly denied any impropriety.

He repeated that denial on Wednesday in response to allegations that he had accepted the hospitality of a Saudi businessman during a stay at the Paris Ritz in breach of ministerial guidelines.

Mr Aitken has attracted controversy mainly because of the secrecy which surrounds his business activities, particularly around his connections with Saudi Arabia. He is one of the wealthiest members of John Major's Cabinet.

Some estimate that he is worth about pounds 30m. It is a self-made fortune and mostly, though not entirely, a reflection of his friendship with a number of Saudi Arabian and Middle Eastern businessmen.

His name was linked with a large Middle Eastern arms deal. Earlier this month he denied that he was considered as an alternative to Mark Thatcher as a 'middleman' for the Al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. It has been alleged that Mr Thatcher received pounds 12m in commission for helping to secure the contract.

Two years ago, the Independent disclosed that a Saudi company called Bilad was named in US court papers as a possible conduit for bribes to members of the Saudi royal family to secure a helicopter contract. Mr Aitken was a director of the British subsidiary of the company but denies any involvement with the Saudi parent.

Bilad was alleged to have been suggested as a conduit for commissions on the second part of the Al Yamamah contract, although another was allegedly finally chosen.

The Saudi businessman alleged to have picked up some of Mr Aitken's bill at the Ritz was a director of Al Bilad (UK). It was also claimed that Wafic Said, a Syrian-born businessman, and another Saudi, a key figure in the Saudi Al Bilad, were at the hotel at the same time.

Mr Said is said to have played an important role in brokering the Al Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia. He is also a close friend of both Mr Thatcher and Mr Aitken. He was a shareholder in Mr Aitken's financial services group, Aitken Hume.

Mr Aitken has only ever said of Mr Said: 'Wafic Said is a well-known international businessman and a significant investor in British companies.'

Mr Aitken was director of another controversial company, BMARC. In 1989, BMARC accepted an order from Ordtech for artillery fuses. The fuses were intended for shipment to Iraq, but were never sent. Mr Aitken said he was never made aware of any such shipment. Nor was he aware that Astra, an associated company, was involved in the 'Supergun' affair.

The year before, in 1988, Mr Aitken was in the headlines after resigning from the board of TV-am following the disclosure of secret Saudi investments in the firm. 'I acknowledge, with the wisdom of seven years' hindsight, an error of judgement,' he said at the time.

Mr Aitken had a famously charmed youth. He was a brilliant journalist, and as a scion of the Beaverbrook family, well connected. His father was a Spitfire pilot and an MP.

The early years of his political career did not match his success as a journalist, however. He was disliked by Margaret Thatcher, who never promoted him to ministerial office. It is often said that the main reason for this was that he upset Carol Thatcher by ending an affair with her. But he has a reputation for unpredictable judgements. He has campaigned for an end to the legal ban on cannabis and has admitted taking LSD.

Mr Major, despite the persistent controversy that seems to follow Mr Aitken, promoted him first to Minister of Defence Procurement in 1992, and then, in the July reshuffle, to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It was while he was Minister of Defence Procurement that he visited the Paris Ritz.

(Photograph omitted)

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