‘Are we all bare-faced liars?’ The question came from Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, in January 1994. It was put to the then editor of the Guardian, Peter Preston. The words ‘we all’ referred to Aitken himself, his wife Lolicia and his faithful Arab friend Said Ayas. The answer to the question was ‘yes’. They were all bare-faced liars, but none more so than the debonair minister himself. Why did he lie? Preston’s question was trivial: who paid for Aitken’s two nights at the Paris Ritz in September 1993? The truth was that the bill had been paid, via Said Ayas, by Prince Mohammed, heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. There was nothing especially horrific about this. Aitken’s association with the Saudi monarchy was well known. A couple of nights at the Ritz cost a thousand quid or so – a bagatelle in Aitken’s world. True, he had not declared any such benefit in the MPs’ Register of Interests, and the acceptance of Ayas’s largesse conflicted with the Rules for Ministers – but this was a minor breach, easily dealt with by an admission and an apology.
Instead, Aitken lied. He made up a ludicrous and convoluted story to prove that he and his wife had paid the Ritz bill. He lied with mounting enthusiasm and passion. He proudly shared his lies with the Cabinet Secretary, the Chief Whip, the Prime Minister. As the controversy grew, he chose to step up what was on the face of it a petty spat with a national newspaper into a mortal contest. By choosing this course of action he risked everything. Why? Jonathan Aitken was not a reactionary dim-wit. On the contrary, he was a consummate, able and independent-minded politician who had even stood up to Margaret Thatcher. He had campaigned in defiance of the Tory Whip against the laws enforcing official secrecy. He had stood trial under the hated Official Secrets Act. Almost everyone who met him liked him. He was witty, well-informed, attractive. When he finally got given a job in government, he performed powerfully at the Despatch Box and was swiftly promoted to the Cabinet. Seasoned Labour politicians had him down as a future prime minister.
So why did he respond to apparently trivial inquiries with such ferocious mendacity? The answer is simple. Money. Jonathan’s was the poorer branch of a celebrated and wealthy family. His great-uncle was the fabulously rich press lord, Lord Beaverbrook, who told his great-nephew that he was able enough to make his own way in politics without the burden of a huge inheritance. Young Jonathan did not go along with this avuncular assessment. Political power, he agreed, was worth striving for. Media acclaim was seductive. But by far the most pressing priority in life was to become seriously rich. He wanted to be an MP. He wanted to be a minister. He wanted to be prime minister. At the same time, and more than anything else, he wanted lots of quick and easy money. Where to start? The answer was obvious. Slater Walker. In 1974 everyone who was anyone was talking about this get-rich-quick financial empire founded by a city slicker and a Tory MP. The first lie I ever extracted from Jonathan Aitken was in reply to an inquiry about some insider dealing he’d been up to at Slater Walker. He even threatened to sue Socialist Worker, where I was working at the time, for libel until he realised I had the necessary print-outs from his stockbroker. When Slater Walker went down the pan soon afterwards, Aitken resolved that his future fortune would no longer be entrusted to the vagaries of the Stock Market. He headed for something far more reliable: the oil fortunes of the Middle East and of the Saudi royals in particular.
‘By the middle of 1976,’ these three Guardian journalists report, ‘Jonathan was effectively on Prince Mohammed’s payroll’: probably the fattest payroll on earth. The Prince provided Aitken with sumptuous offices in Mayfair, the money to invest (surreptitiously) in a newly franchised television company (TV-am), a merchant bank (Aitken Hume), a health hydro (Inglewood), a wonderful house within easy walking distance of the House of Commons, a mansion in his Kent constituency, a Jaguar. In return, Aitken put himself entirely at the Prince’s disposal. He would do anything, his secretary reported, to ‘keep the Arabs happy’. He would even help to provide them with what they were denied at home by their wives and their laws: prostitutes. All the gifts which providence had showered on Jonathan Aitken were devoted to pimping for the billionaires from Riyadh.
The relationship between Prince and pimp grew closer after 1985, when Margaret Thatcher signed the first of the Al Yamamah agreements on behalf of the British Government. Al Yamamah, Arabic for ‘The Dove’, was the biggest arms deal in history. Over the next decade, 20 billion dollars’ worth of Saudi oil and cash were to pay for bombers and guns and warships made in British factories. The price in every case was far higher than the manufacturing cost. Harding et al quote some examples: ‘A Tornado fighter-bomber which cost Nato £20m was to be sold to the Saudis for closer to £35m … Each 2000 lb bomb that went on the planes was fitted with a sophisticated electronic fuse made by Thorn-EMI … a total of 26 per cent in commissions was paid by Thorn EMI on each transaction.’ The authors conclude: ‘An underground river of money of at least £300m a year in secret commissions began to flow, corrupting British business life.’
Mrs Thatcher liked to talk about ‘good husbandry’: here, in its place, was unimaginable profligacy and corruption. Yet even the most inquisitive journalist with access to government press offices and accounts found it impossible effectively to expose the great outrage of the time. We were dealing almost entirely in rumour. For instance, it became ‘common knowledge’ that Mark Thatcher enriched himself to the tune of £12m from the Al Yamamah deals. Thatcher himself never denied it or sued anyone for mentioning it. Yet no one, not even the authors of Thatcher’s Gold, an entire book on the subject, could produce a single hard fact to prove it. The name of Wafic Said, a multi-millionaire friend of the Thatchers, was bandied about as a beneficiary of the Al Yamamah commissions. Once again, there was not a single document or reliable piece of evidence to prove the connection. In 1991, the National Audit Office carried out an inquiry into Al Yamamah. Incredibly, the report was never published. At the first whiff of the burglar, the watchdog slunk away. The report was suppressed by order of Bob Sheldon, the Labour chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, and his Tory deputy. I remember contacting Sheldon in his Lancashire constituency on the day before the 1992 General Election, and remonstrating with him. Did he not have a reputation in the House of Commons for prising unpalatable facts and figures out of the ministries? Did he not believe in open government? Was he not suppressing a report which ought to be in the public domain? Yes, yes, yes, he muttered mournfully, but ‘there are too many jobs at stake here.’ The report, he promised, found ‘no evidence of corruption, or of public money being used improperly’. Sheldon said he had spent ‘many many hours worrying about his decision’ but in the end he came down on the side of obfuscation and silence.
Even the three Guardian authors, who have had access to documents which writs have forced out of the previous government and the Aitken entourage, are short on hard facts about the extent of the Al Yamamah commissions and their destinations. Somehow, hundreds of millions of pounds are still being diverted every year from government-to-government arms contracts via scores of hidey-holes into the secret bank accounts of the Saudi royals and their British acolytes.
There are some who say that the Saudi Government insisted on Aitken’s appointment as Arms Procurement Minister in 1992. I doubt that even the Saudi royals would presume to make such a direct demand. The real reason Major could put Prince Mohammed’s pimp and bagman in charge of arms procurement and, later, promote him to Chief Secretary to the Treasury was that the Prime Minister, like the rest of us, knew next to nothing about the extent of Aitken’s immersion in Saudi sleaze.
As so often, the veil of secrecy which shielded the corruption from public view was lifted, just for a moment, by pure chance. One day in September 1993, Mohammed Al Fayed, owner of the Paris Ritz, saw Aitken in the hotel lounge. The chance meeting coincided with a chance feud. Fayed was at the start of his vendetta against the Tory Government for not providing him with a British passport. Fayed told Peter Preston that he had seen Aitken in the Ritz. There followed a long correspondence between Preston, nervously but insistently asking at whose expense a Minister of the Crown had stayed at the Ritz, and Aitken replying with increasing inventiveness that he had paid the bill, no sorry, his wife had paid it, no sorry, his wife had paid part of it. In fact, he had gone to the Ritz, as he had done many times before, to discuss the arms commissions. Which is, of course, why he lied. He could not tell his Treasury officials or his ministerial colleagues what he was up to. It would never occur to him to pay his own bill for such a visit. What was the point of being a courtier if the court didn’t pay for the jaunt? But if he publicly admitted the truth and tried to apologise, further questions might be asked.
When his lies to Preston led to more dramatic revelations in the Guardian and on Granada’s World in Actionprogramme, Aitken held a press conference in Tory Central Office. It fell to him, he intoned, to take up what he called ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play’ against the ‘cancer of bitter and twisted journalism’. He sued for libel. This was not as risky as it sounds. The history of British libel law is littered with victories by famous and wealthy men even when there is substantial evidence against them. The very form and process of a court libel action favours the accomplished, well-spoken plaintiff against even the best of Grub Street. In this case, the legal establishment rode to Aitken’s assistance as though he really was the wounded knight of his own imagining. On Aitken’s application, an elderly judge, married to a Tory shire councillor, decided he would take the case without a jury, and the Court of Appeal, led by the Lord Chief Justice, agreed. The core of democratic balance in a court of law – the jury – was suddenly gone.
After the first week of the Aitken libel action last June, the Guardian and Granada journalists looked glum. The former MP (he lost his safe seat in the May landslide) was lying all right, but he was lying with such charm, verve and enthusiasm that he looked and sounded like a winner. The case seemed lost. The dramatic story of how Aitken was finally defeated by his own lies is superbly set out in the final chapters of this book. The truth came out not by due process of law, but thanks to a mixture of journalistic diligence and sheer good fortune. The Swiss hotel where Mrs Aitken was in fact staying that September weekend had, by chance, gone bust. A Guardian reporter, Owen Bowcott, begged the receivers for access to records which would normally have been kept miles out of his reach. Against all the odds, permission was granted. By chance, the records included a reference to an American Express account, which revealed that Mrs Aitken had hired a car and dumped it in Switzerland at precisely the time she was meant to be paying the bill at the Paris Ritz. If Mrs Aitken had flown to Switzerland on Swissair, the flight documents would have been kept secret. By chance, she flew British Airways, whose staff, after the inevitable subpoena, released the necessary documents to the court in the nick of time: Mrs Aitken, it turned out, had flown directly to Switzerland. She had not been in Paris that weekend. She did not pay any bill at the Ritz. Aitken was a liar. To defend his own lies, he had enlisted his wife and teenage daughter to lie on his behalf in witness statements which, but for the last-minute revelations, would have added up to perjury.