Profile: A maker of money and mischief: Jonathan Aitken, the PM's Treasury gamble

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The Independent Online
The post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury is one of the most sensitive in Government. It demands a safe pair of hands, a diplomatic disposition and a consistent toughness of purpose. Although the Chief (as form demands he be addressed) is a Cabinet minister, he will be the most junior around that oval table in Number Ten. Yet his delicate task is to oversee public expenditure, forcing Departmental barons far senior to him to slash their budgets and abandon cherished projects.

This is why the appointment of the maverick multi-millionaire, Jonathan Aitken - tall, dark and handsome and with a reputation as a lady killer - as deputy to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke has come as such a surprise.

It is not that Aitken did not merit promotion. He had acquitted himself well as Minister for Defence Procurement. But the languid yet drivingly ambitious old Etonian has always raised hackles in traditional Tory circles. This is in part because his fortune is self-made, and in part because it came from banking and other joint ventures with Saudi royals and assorted, rather mysterious, Arab chums. As Lord Tebbit noted after the reshuffle, Aitken 'can seem too good looking, charming and smooth for his own good'.

Moreover, this scion of the Beaverbrook family cannot easily be classified as politically Wet or Dry. He is a Eurosceptic who supported the Maastricht Treaty but opposed the Channel Tunnel. He would curb abortions, decriminalise pot and hang the killers of police officers.

To put it bluntly: Nobody doubts the toughness, the energy and the ability, of the 52 year old great nephew of the late Lord Beaverbrook. He has these virtues in buckets, as did the Beaver. But safe, diplomatic and consistent? Come on]

Moreover, Aitken also inherited the Beaver's engaging journalistic faults. His attention span is short, he is a gadfly, a mischiefmaker, and his political agenda is wildly eclectic. Things fall apart when he is around.

The Beaver then must bear some of the blame for Jonathan's ideosyncratic style and interests. And we are not merely talking gentics. When he was a child, Aitken's immediate family was estranged from Beaverbrook. Even so, at Christ Church, Oxford, in the early 1960s, Jonathan wrote politely to the Old Man asking if they could meet. He was summoned to Cherkley for Sunday lunch where the old reprobate delivered himself of one piece of advice. 'Your father is a good man but a dull man. You must stir up mischief.' Jonathan took the message and has never looked back.

While still an undergraduate, Aitken became close to Beaverbrook and, shortly before he died in June 1964, the multi-millionaire creator of Beaverbrook Newspapers called his great nephew and told him that he was a bright boy with a bright future. Aitken could logically have harboured great expectations. Instead the old man growled 'I am going to pay you the greatest compliment - I am not goign to leave you a cent.'

So it was that the restless and ambitious young man went forth into the Swinging Sixties penniless, at least by the standards of his peers. (In fact Aitken inherited pounds 5,000 from his father, Sir William Aitken a Tory MP, who died at this time. His mother was forced to sell the family home and Joanthan was unable to read for the Bar.) Armed only with a Second in Law and the Beaverbrook injunction to make mischief, Jonathan set of for London Town to seek his fortune.

What manner of man was he at this time? Well, Aitken had been a Golden Boy at Oxford. He had written speeches for the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, as a holiday job while other people were working on the Post or picking hops in Kent. He worked his way through many of the most eleigible female undergraduates of the period, and was one of the most brilliant debaters of his generation. He should have been President of the Union. But this glittering prize was denied him on three occasions.

Aitken was persistently ridiculed and heckled when he attempted to speak in the Union. He likes to claim that it was the Beaverbrook connection which drew the wrath of lesser mortals. But the Union had in recent years accomodated the ambitions of the offspring of other, and more immediately contentious, political families without prejudice. Its members had for example included been a young Mosley, a young Churchill, a young Channon and a young Hamilton. The hostility to Aitken, was personal, and it reflects annoyance at his rather smug and self-satisfied style, an annoyance which still surfaces from time to time, as Lord Tebbit noted.

After two years as political secretary to Selwyn LLoyd, Aitken joined the Evening Standard, then a Beaverbrook publication and since the 1920s a sage haven for talented, mischievous upper class bright young things. Aitken enjoyed himself immensely and entered into the spirit of ther age. In the late 1960s he campaigned for the legalisation of cannnabis and wrote of his experience of taking LSD. He also wrote a silly book The Young Meteors which extolled the virtues of the elite of the new geration which was about to take up the reins of power. It was clear that he regarded himself as a leading member of the trendy shower of meteors about to crash benficially onto this country.

But Atken also proved to be a thoughtful, as well a brave and swashbuckling, foreign correspondent. And it was this serious side of his character which was almost to destroy his career. Aitken was genuinely outraged by the British government's uncritical support for the Nigerian government which was brutally suppressing breakawy Biafra in that country's cruel civil war. He obtained a confidential Ministry of Defence document confirming that this country was secretly supplying arms to Nigeria. It was published in the Sunday Telegraph in January 1970, only a five months before the general election. Aitken was promptly prosecuted under Section Section Two of the Official Secrets Act.( He was eventuallly acquitted.)

Although the episode was frightening, Aitken was streetwise enough to know that prosecution would do him - an aspiring journalist, and a chip of the old Beaverbrook block, no harm professionally. The trouble was its political impact. The Conservative Party does not take kindly to people who are prosecuted for 'betraying the country's secrets.' So Aitken's arrest forced him to abandon his Parliamentary candidacy at Thirk and Malton, to which he had been nominated the three years earlier, beating such distinguished rivals as Christopher Soames and Julian Amery.

Aitken was acquitted shortly after the 1970 election, but it took him another four years before he got into the House in 1974 as Member for Thanet East. The prosecution was important because it gave credence to his reputation as being somehow unreliable, the sort of chap who, however unfairly, attracts trouble. And it confirmed him as a early advocate of radical reform or abolition of the Official Secrets Act (twenty years this was a deeply suspect position to adopt.) In 1987 he was to emerge as one of the handful of Tory rebels who supported the unsuccessful attempt by his friend, the libertarian backbencher Richard Shepherd to force a furious Margaret Thatcher to reform the Official Secrets Act.

Long before this episode however Aikten had got on the wrong side of Mrs Thatcher. In the 1970s he had escorted a string of the richest, most attractive and generally eligible young women in Town. But then he started going out with Carol Thatcher. It seemed he was about to make a Good Marriage, pooliticallly speaking, with Mummy's approval. But it was not to be. The relationship collapsed, Carol was distressed by the parting and Mummy is said never to have forgiven the man who 'made Carol cry'.