Leading Article: Miserly with the truth

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IN THE HANDSOME shape of Jonathan Aitken, the Government now has a completely incredible Chief Secretary to the Treasury and yet another tarnished minister who is for the moment enjoying that frail condition known as the 'full confidence' of John Major. Mr Aitken (pictured below) has become impossible, or nearly impossible, to believe. He is the minister in charge of public spending. He needs to command the trust of others, he needs to be frank, he needs to possess a head for facts and figures and a mastery of detail. In the tortuous affair of his bill from the Ritz hotel, Paris, all these qualities have eluded him. Only in one form of economy - the linguistic sort, being economical with the truth - does he seem aptly qualified for the Treasury job. Sir Robert Armstrong famously coined that phrase as an admission of omission during his evidence to the Spycatcher trial in Australia. His successor as Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, who advised Mr Aitken, now stands dangerously close to the same charge.

The story of Mr Aitken's stay at the Ritz and his subsequent bill is complicated, but it is not, in Mr Major's phrase, 'tittle- tattle'. The Guardian newspaper and its editor, Peter Preston, have pursued it rigorously and vigorously, using a little of what Mr Preston describes as 'modest subterfuge'. Last October the Guardian learnt that Mr Aitken had spent a weekend at the Ritz with some of his former Saudi associates: Wafic Said, who owned about a third of Aitken Hume, the merchant bank established by Mr Aitken; Said Mohamed Ayas, a former fellow director of Mr Aitken's in Al Bilad (UK), the British branch of a company owned by the eldest son of the Saudi king; and Fahad Somait, another Al Bilad director. This raised a possible conflict of interest. Cabinet Office procedure requires ministers to ensure that 'no conflict arises or is thought to arise between (their) private interests and (their) public duties'. As for travel and hospitality, 'ministers will wish to ensure that no undue obligation is involved'. Mr Aitken was then Minister of State for Defence Procurement. Saudi Arabia is a large purchaser of British arms, particularly through the now contentious pounds 20bn Al Yamamah contract with which Mr Aitken's name has often been associated.

The Guardian asked Mr Aitken about the meeting. On 20 October last year he replied: 'I had no meeting with Mr Ayas, Dr Somait and Mr Wafic Said in Paris over the weekend of September 18 or at any other place or time. I have not seen or spoken to Dr Somait or Wafic Said for several months. The purpose of my visit was to meet my wife and daughter - who was going to her new school that weekend. I had no meetings in Paris or Geneva except for social encounters with my daughter's godparents and other old friends.'

Here Mr Aitken was a positive miser with the truth. Mr Aitken had met Mr Ayas; he was one of the godparents mentioned in the last sentence. But he had not, he might argue, met him in the company of Mr Said and Dr Somait, which, he might argue, was his meaning in the first sentence. Most people, however, would understand Mr Aitken's statement as a blanket denial, and perhaps it would have stood as such had not Mr Ayas confirmed that he and Mr and Mrs Aitken and their daughter Victoria had dined together in Paris on the weekend in question.

That information was put to Mr Aitken, who replied: 'Yes I did see Mr Ayas.

We are genuinely close family friends and have been so for approximately 25 years. His mother introduced me to my wife 17 years ago. Our teenage children are friends. Our wives are friends. We have meals together quite often.'

The newspaper by this stage, late in 1993, had seen copies of the hotel bills. They showed that Mr Aitken's bill for 8,010 francs 90 centimes in room 526 had been credited to Mr Ayas's account in room 626; that Mr Aitken had stayed at the Ritz on his own; and that Dr Somait had occupied another room before the weekend, with the bill also credited to Mr Ayas. The newspaper put the question to Mr Aitken, and on 13 January he replied: 'Mr Ayas did not pay my hotel bill. The facts of the matter are that the hotel bill was paid by my wife, with money given to her by me for this purpose, some hours after I had left Paris.' Mr Preston then wrote again. 'You stayed for the nights of September 17 and 18 in room 526. It cost 8010.90 francs.

Mr Ayas was billed for it by arrangement, and paid the full charge.

'Debiteur A/C Mr Ayas, 626/7.' ' Mr Aitken replied: 'The words in question translate not as paid by Mr Ayas but as payable by Mr Ayas, because Ayas was the booker of the room.' At Mr Preston's suggestion, Mr Aitken agreed to arbitration by Sir Robin Butler. (The correspondence and the story were still private.) Then, on 26 January, he wrote to say that he had found a time-dated receipt for the cash payment, and that Mr Ayas's lawyers had received a letter from the Ritz management confirming that Mrs Aitken had paid the bill.

The Ritz letter, which was dated 31 January, five days after Mr Aitken said it had been received, turned out to consist of only one sentence in French confirming that 'you (Mr Ayas) have not personally paid the hotel bill of Jonathan Aitken'. (According to the Guardian, the bill had been paid by a company account through the Nice branch of the Banque Francaise de l'Orient.) By 3 February, Sir Robin Butler had seen all the correspondence and on 18 February both he and Mr Aitken wrote to Mr Preston. Sir Robin said he had tendered confidential advice; in the light of it, Mr Aitken said, 'I am entirely confident of my position'.

On 17 February Mr Aitken had faxed Frank Klein, the Ritz manager, asking him if he could remember Mrs Aitken paying the bill. On 28 February, Mr Klein replied that the cashier recalled 'a brunette lady of European aspect paid the cash sum of Ff4257 in favour of the account of Mr Ayas'. Mr Aitken then wrote on 3 March to Sir Robin including a version of this letter, but ending Mr Klein's statement at the word 'sum', and minus a full stop. The skinflint of truth strikes again.

Last week, because the Guardian also obtained a copy of the Klein letter, we got the fuller picture. Mr Aitken provided yet another late explanation; the remainder of the bill had been paid by mistake by Mr Ayas's nephew, who had been recompensed by Mr Aitken on 21 February with a cheque drawn on Mr Aitken's own bank.

Oddly, Mr Aitken did not mention this cheque 10 days after he wrote it in his letter to Sir Robin of 3 March. Sir Robin and Mr Major continue to insist that he has no case to answer. Outside these narrow and partisan confines, however, Mr Aitken looks like a man toiling in the slippery marshes of half-truths and evasion.

(Photograph omitted)

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