When the Independent on Sunday telephoned Jonathan Aitken to tell him he had pipped his former ministerial colleague, Neil Hamilton, in the poll for Villain of the Year, he did respond, but abruptly: "I am not interested in talking to you. Goodbye," he said.
Once, Aitken would have been happy to talk, swaggering in his own impregnability. When newspapers like this one and its sister the Independent were keen to explore his business affairs, Aitken would engage in macho verbal combat. Not any more.
He is a broken figure, a shadow of the thrusting, Conservative Cabinet minister who roused his party by promising to crush allegations of sleaze with "the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play". It is hard to imagine now that when he called the press conference in 1995 to denounce three separate claims - that he had procured prostitutes for Arabs, allowed an Arab businessman and friend to pay his bill at the Ritz hotel in Paris, and had had dealings with arms dealers - Aitken was spoken of by some colleagues as a future leader of the party. Friends predicted that once he had put the press to the sword, his fortunes would soar.
They reckoned without the awful truth that Aitken was lying. But the fact he is a liar does not explain why he topped the poll for Villain of the Year. He owes that dubious distinction to his willingness to encourage his daughter to lie on his behalf. He was prepared to allow her to face cross-examination from George Carman QC - probably the most fearsome barrister in the land.
The shattering realisation that his plot had failed came on the afternoon of 18 June. For days, Mr Aitken's lawyer, Richard Sykes, had been telling the press to expect "Ladies Day", when his wife, Lolicia and daughter, Victoria, would give evidence proving the falsity of the Guardian's claim that his Ritz bill was paid by someone else. Lolling in the courtroom, Aitken's demeanour had been carefree. Then it changed. He had been handed a statement the Guardian had obtained from a British Airways employee proving that his wife and daughter had not flown to Paris, as claimed, but to Geneva.
Mr Carman described this as the most dramatic moment of his career. A humiliated Aitken was left with a pounds 2m legal bill. His marriage was in tatters. His political career, threatened by the loss of his Thanet South seat at the general election was finished. He resigned, before he was pushed, from the Privy Council, thus losing the right to describe himself as the Right Honourable. Scotland Yard launched an investigation for possible perjury.
Aitken has turned to God for guidance. In the Spectator this week, he wrote of remorse, concluding: "So long as faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ is one's companion in life's dark valleys, then even a painful Christmas can still be a joyful Christmas."
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