Let Me Back into the Fray; AITKEN PLANS A RETURN TO FRONTLINE POLITICS AFTER ARMS-TO-IRAN ALLEGATIONS ARE DISMISSED 'MY HONOUR IS VINDICATED BUT IT WAS AN ORDEAL'
Byline: JOHN DEANS
FORMER Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken set his sights on rejoining the Government yesterday after MPs cleared him in the arms-to-Iran scandal.
Allegations that he knew about banned shipments when he was a director of the BMARC arms firm in the Eighties were dismissed by the all-party Trade and Industry Select Committee.
Mr Aitken, who resigned as Treasury Chief Secretary last year so he could fight to clear his name, said he now hoped to return to `frontline politics'.
The millionaire businessman and Tory MP for Thanet South in Kent said: `Although it has been an ordeal to have spent more than a year under the cloud of accusations of serious criminal wrongdoing about my alleged involvement in illegal arms dealing, I am glad that my honour has been vindicated.'
He added: `I feel I have been cleared, exonerated and vindicated . . .
this is a major breakthrough for me in the process of clearing my name.'
Mr Aitken said he had also been told informally by Customs and Excise, which is conducting a criminal investigation into the affair, that he was in the clear.
He now hopes the committee's findings will help his libel battle against Granada TV and the Guardian newspaper concerning allegations involving the arms controversy.
The Commons committee backed his insistence that he knew nothing of Project Lisi, the supply of naval guns during the Iran-Iraq war.
While acknowledging that cannon built from components made by BMARC, based at Grantham, Lincolnshire, were supplied to the Iranian navy in breach of Government guidelines, the committee's report laid most blame on Whitehall for granting licences. The committee's Labour chairman, Martin O'Neill, said: `An awful lot of applications for licences were considered in a very slipshod way.'
The report dismissed the evidence of Gerald James, former chairman of BMARC, who had claimed that Mr Aitken was present at a board meeting when the destination of the guns was disclosed.
It said: `We find that Mr James's allegations are, in general, incredible. On the matters we have examined in detail, Mr James has proved to be a highly unreliable witness and we do not believe any purpose would be served by investigating his allegations further.'
At a Westminster news conference, one of Mr O'Neill's colleagues expressed concern. Ken Purchase, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North-East, suggested that the committee had been unable to probe deeply enough because of a lack of resources. It would have been more appropriate for Scotland Yard to have carried out the inquiry, he said.
He also challenged the committee's view that Mr James was an unreliable witness.
`I accept that to some extent it was like a blind man in a darkened cellar looking for a black cat that wasn't there,' Mr Purchase said, adding that it was impossible to substantiate what Mr James had alleged.
Mr O'Neill brushed aside the criticism. `We are not convinced that anyone in the company knew that there was an attempt to divert the attention of the Department of Trade and Industry export licensing - and as a consequence of that, we don't see any case against Jonathan Aitken or any of the other directors,' he insisted. …