Jonathan Aitken Jailed
The 8th of June 1999 AD
Jonathan Aitken, labelled a serial liar by Private Eye, brought himself down by using evidence he knew was false in pursuit of major libel damages. With the benefit of hindsight Old Etonian Aitken’s hypocrisy was breathtaking in his now notorious speech at Conservative Party HQ in Smith Square, where he said he would use the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play to fight against falsehood. On June 8 1999 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for perjury, Belmarsh Prison something of a contrast to the Ritz Hotel in Paris where his stay had been central to the fateful libel case.
Aitken had been a significant figure on the right of British politics: he served in John Major ’s cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, often a stepping-stone to one of the great offices of state; he was a privy council member; and it is said that he was chairman of the secretive foreign-policy think-tank Le Cercle, its members a who’s who of the worldwide right.
His downfall was spectacular in the literal sense, the case a very public matter followed by all sections of the media, the Schadenfreude of those journalists not of his political stripe very clear to see. It was shown that he had lied in court about his wife paying a Paris hotel bill when she was proved to have been in Switzerland at the time. His libel case against The Guardian and World in Action immediately collapsed; he was bankrupted by the legal bills for that case; resigned from the Privy Council, and pleaded guilty to the perjury and perverting the course of justice charges subsequently brought against him. He served seven months in prison, the judge in his Old Bailey trial using the memorable phrase ‘web of deceit’ about Aitken’s conduct.
Is it laudable or laughable that few if any of his political friends expressed outrage about his actions? A few years after his release from prison there was talk of a political comeback for the now fervently religious Aitken. Michael Howard , then leader of the Tory Party, made it clear he saw no future as a Conservative MP for the only cabinet minister in modern times to have served time.
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