Thursday, 29 March 2018

Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality by Jonathan Aitken . Remembering Jonathan Aitken

Jonathan Aitken: 'I lost it all - except my £33,000 MP's pension'
Fame & Fortune: The disgraced former Conservative MP on divorce, prison, bankruptcy - and how he can still afford £15,240 for his Isa each year

Life's lessons: 'I accepted that life had changed and got on with it,' says Jonathan Aiken of being broke Photo: Geoffrey Swaine/REX Shutterstock
By Donna Ferguson8:00AM BST 14 Jun 2015

Jonathan Aitken, 72, is a former Conservative MP and Cabinet minister, who served seven months in prison for perjury in 1999 after he sued The Guardian for libel. He lives in Kensington with his second wife, Elizabeth, who is also in her seventies, and has four children.

How did your childhood influence your work ethic and attitude towards money?
I spent a lot of my childhood in hospital as a tuberculosis patient. When I was about four, I fell ill with TB and was then immobilised on an iron lung for three-and-a-half years, looked after by nuns. It made me very competitive because a lot of the children on the TB ward died. I was very keen not to die – so I worked hard at the breathing exercises and I enjoyed my schoolwork. I certainly had no interest in money.

Your father was the Conservative MP Sir William Aitken, a nephew of Lord Beaverbrook. Was your family very well off?
For a long time, we weren’t particularly. I grew up in the era of food rationing, so no one seemed to be. I remember eggs were rationed and minding a bit that I only got two eggs a week.

As a family, we were quite frugal and careful. Going to the cinema or the theatre was a big treat.

We did become more prosperous when I was in my teens. My father somehow or other made money and bought a very nice moated house called Playford [in Suffolk]. When you live in an Elizabethan moated manor house, you realise that your father’s done all right.

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Did you get any pocket money?
Yes, something like sixpence a week. Those were the days when you could still buy a packet of crisps for a farthing. I was always a bit cautious with my pocket money – I’ve always been a saver.

 What was your very first job?
Assistant tennis and funerals reporter for the East Anglian Daily Times. It was a school holiday job – I was 17. I was paid £4 a day. That was riches in those days.

Has there been a time in your life when you didn’t know how you were going to pay the bills?
After I went bankrupt, there were two very rough years when I was out of prison and on a bankrupt’s allowance. I had £200 or £250 a week to live on. I had to make economies like travelling by bus and buying food in the supermarket after midnight, because prices halved due to sell-by dates.

I wasn’t desperate, my mother used to help out occasionally. I eventually settled my debts under an IVA [an individual voluntary arrangement].

What’s the worst thing about being broke?
Adjusting. I had a dramatic reduction in my standard of living. I’d been rather rich. Through the Eighties and Nineties, I was the chairman of a small merchant bank which I had founded. I had banking deals in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. My car was a Jaguar. One minute I’d been having lunch at Claridge’s and I had a big house in the heart of Westminster and a country house in Sandwich Bay in Kent and then, crash, I had a big fall.

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Was it painful?
It was, in many ways – I went through defeat, divorce, disgrace, bankruptcy and jail. That’s a royal flush of crises by anyone’s standards. It was painful financially, certainly, but not as painful as getting divorced or going to jail. I’d put being broke third or fourth.

The worst thing was not being able to provide for my children. I minded not being the provider of the family, but I managed.

How did you cope?
I went back to Oxford as a student, to study theology. Most of my fellow students were training to be priests and were almost poorer than I was.

It was hard, but although I was broke, it wasn’t a breaking experience – I accepted that life had changed and got on with it. I learnt how to manage quite quickly. I exchanged Mammon for God.

How much have you had to pay out in legal fees since 1997?
I think it was £4m. That, and an expensive divorce, was what brought me to bankruptcy.

What’s your main source of income nowadays?
Pensions. In a good year, I used to put £20,000 away into my pension pot, so I have a good occupational pension from the investment bank, as well as a parliamentary pension of £33,000 a year [he was an MP for 23 years].

I still earn money as a business consultant and an author – I’ve always found it possible to earn money with my pen. I write quite a bit for newspapers, and I had a biography out on Margaret Thatcher which sold well last year.

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What is the most lucrative work you have ever done?
I must have made £250,000 from my book on Nixon [published in 1993].

After I came out of prison, I was paid $15,000 to make a speech in the United States.

Worst money mistake you’ve ever made?
Suing The Guardian for libel. It cost me my reputation, my home, my parliamentary career and my lifestyle.

Are you a spender or a saver?
I’m definitely a saver these days. I save to provide for whatever’s left to me of life’s journey, and to still contribute something towards my children. But I’m never going to be rich again – nor am I interested in that.

Do you support any charities?
Yes. My main focus is charitable work, which includes charitable giving but much more is the work of being a trustee. I’m a trustee or some other office of eight charities, and almost all of them are in the criminal justice or Christian field. For example, Nacro, the crime reduction charity, and Caring for Ex-offenders.

I donate more than 50pc of my time and a good 15pc of my money to them.

Do you have property?
No. I lost it all, and I wouldn’t want a property now. I’m happy to rent. I’ve really lost interest in possessions. I haven’t bought anything of any significant value for nearly 20 years.

If you were Chancellor, what economic policies would you change?
I think it’s hard to handle the economy more wisely than George Osborne. I’m a tremendous Osborne fan. I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury so I understand quite a bit about curbing government expenditure. I think the Treasury under George Osborne has been a success story. There are small things I’d like to see: more encouragement for small businesses and the inheritance tax threshold raised to £1m.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
For a time I collected political first editions and got them signed by their authors. I think the collection was worth £50,000, but I lost them all in my bankruptcy.

What’s the one luxury or indulgence you couldn’t live without?
I still take the trouble to buy handmade suits. They’re expensive – about £2,000. I buy one every two years.

Notorious: Jonathan Aitken and his daughter Alexandra arriving at court during his libel trial against The Guardian

How do you prefer to pay for things – cash, or debt or credit card?
Cheque. I pay for a lot of things by cheque still. I use the credit card a bit because I just have to, and I don’t pay by cheque in the supermarket. I’m sure that would get people angry.

But I’m old-fashioned enough to think there’s something rather solid about a transaction like paying your tailor by cheque, and I do my charitable giving by cheque. I realise I’m a bit of a dying breed.

How do you tip?
Typically on the high side – about 15pc. I don’t go to restaurants that much, but the ones I go to, I know them quite well, so I’m reasonably generous to them.

Do you invest in stocks and shares?
I do a little bit. I put the maximum amount [£15,240] into my annual Isa.

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What do you invest in?
I happen to think that India is a very up-and-coming market, so I bought some shares in an Indian investment trust for this year’s Isa, but I don’t play the stock market the way I used to.

What are your financial priorities for the next five or 10 years?
Keeping my head above water. Remaining modestly solvent and saving so that I can leave something to my children. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I enjoy working and I’m busier than I’ve almost ever been, with my consulting, my writing, my speaking engagements and my charity work.

Money comes very low on my list of priorities. I don’t really want to have money, and I don’t really think of it that much. Life is very full and I’m very happy.

- Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality, Jonathan Aitken’s biography of the former Prime Minister, is available to buy now

Jonathan Aitken: A broken man
Twenty years ago his star was in the ascendant. Jonathan Aitken mixed with beautiful women, made millions and was tipped to be a future Prime Minister. Today he is disgraced, divorced and facing a lengthy prison sentence. This is the story of the man who lied and lost
by Kim Sengupta Wednesday 20 January 1999 00:02 GMT0

It was a pleasant evening of good food, fine wine and exquisite company. Jonathan Aitken, 30, successful, handsome and with all the right connections, was charting the future course of his life to a choice selection of his actor friends and chums in the media. Go into business and become fabulously rich, become an MP, then a minister and finally prime minister. There were dates for the scaling of each of these peaks. The climb was slower than he anticipated. But 22 years later, in 1994, he was in the Cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury. He'd made a pile of money from lucrative business deals with Arabs. And he owned properties at home and abroad including a pounds 2m Westminster house, the former London home of Brendan Bracken, where he entertained the likes of Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger.
The downfall that followed is almost Shakespearean in its dimensions: here stands a man fatally flawed by his own arrogance. The final act came with his disastrous High Court action against The Guardian and Granada TV, and the words that would later come back to haunt him: "the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play."

Aitken had sued over a series of serious allegations made about his relationship with wealthy Arabs, including the report that a pounds 1,000 bill for his stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in l993 had been paid by a Saudi contact. Giving evidence, Aitken lied under oath about the payment, inventing roles in the saga for his wife and young daughter. He was found out and humiliatingly forced to withdraw his action. The man whose head had been full of great plans at the age of 30 suddenly discovered that he'd lost his credibility as a public figure.

The dreams of greatness are now just cold ashes. But yesterday the man once tipped as a future Tory leader managed to make a mark of sorts in history - as the first former cabinet minister to plead guilty to perjury and perverting the course of justice and, with that, likely to face a lengthy prison sentence.

Aitken is, he says, now broke. The house in Westminster will have to be sold. His marriage, he says, is over. Politically he is a man who is isolated, apart from a small circle of maverick right-wing friends.

Aitken jailed for 18 months
4.45pm update
By Guardian staff and agencies

Tue 8 Jun 1999 16.44 BST First published on Tue 8 Jun 1999 16.44 BST

Former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was jailed at the Old Bailey today for 18 months after admitting perjury and perverting the course of justice.
He received 18 months for both counts, to run concurrently.

Mr Justice Scott Baker told Aitken: "For nearly four years you wove a web of deceit in which you entangled yourself and from which there was no way out unless you were prepared to come clean and tell the truth. Unfortunately you were not."

The prosecution

Case history

Former Conservative Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken forced himself into a position "where perjury was almost inevitable", the Old Bailey was told today.

He allowed aides of the Saudi royal family to pay his £1,000 hotel bill during a stay at the Paris Ritz in September 1993.

But he was a Government minister in charge of Defence Procurement at the time, and banned from taking hospitality which might place him under an obligation, Mr David Waters QC, prosecuting, told the court.

When the Guardian newspaper got a copy of the bill and challenged Mr Aitken, he told them his wife Lolicia had paid his part of it using money he had given her.

Mr Aitken continued with the same lies when he tried to sue the Guardian and Granada television for libel in the High Court in 1997, said Mr Waters, adding: "In fact, he forced himself into a position were perjury was almost inevitable - inevitable unless he was to admit telling lies years before."

Mr Aitken, 56, who until the last election was Tory MP for Thanet, Kent, for 23 years, and who was in the Cabinet as First Secretary to the Treasury in 1994-5, has admitted committing perjury during the High Court libel action.

He has also admitted attempting to pervert the course of justice by drafting a witness statement for his daughter Victoria, 18, in which she backed up his version of events.

The 16-day libel hearing collapsed after evidence was produced that Mr Aitken's wife and daughter were in Switzerland during the weekend of September 17-19, 1993, when he had said they were in Paris.

Mr Waters said Mr Aitken was arrested in March 1998 and charged in May. Two other charges, alleging perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, had been ordered to lie on file not proceeded with after Mr Aitken denied them at an earlier hearing.

Mr Waters said: "It is fair to say between 1992-95, there is evidence to show that he was a hard-working and conscientious minister." Mr Aitken resigned as a Minister in 1995 to begin the civil proceedings.

Aitken arrives in court

Mr Aitken, wearing a smart blue suit and tie, arrived for today's hearing looking grave. He was met by photographers as he entered the court with a group of friends.

His mother Lady Aitken, actress sister Maria Aitken, and his son William, 16, had arrived moments earlier. With them were his twin daughters Victoria and Alexandra, both 18, and their half-sister Petrina Khashoggi, also 18.

His former boss, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Defence Secretary at the time Mr Aitken was Defence Procurement Minister between 1992-4, also sat in court, waiting to give evidence.

Mr Aitken spoke only once, replying when asked to confirm that his name was Jonathan William Patrick Aitken: "It is."

Aitken's stay at the Ritz

Mr Aitken had "formed a very close relationship" with Said Ayas, a principal aide to Prince Mohammed, the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, shortly after becoming an MP in 1974. He had also become acquainted with the prince. Mr Ayas and his wife became godparents to the Mr Aitken twins.

Mr Aitken had stayed in a room at the Ritz which had been marked for payment from the account of the "Ayas party" who were staying in two other rooms at the hotel, said Mr Waters.

After The Guardian got a copy of the bill in 1994, it challenged Mr Aitken who replied that his wife had paid his portion of the account in cash.

The cash payment had been made by a woman employed by the Saudis, Mr Waters told the court.

Mr Aitken received information from Ritz president Frank Klein about his bill which showed how he was prepared to "pervert and utilise the information to his own advantage", Mr Waters said.

Mr Klein wrote to Mr Aitken telling him that a cashier recalled "a brunette lady of European aspect, speaking French, paid the cash sum of 4,257 francs in favour of the account of Mr Ayas".

Mr Waters said part of the letter was helpful to Mr Aitken if he was using it dishonestly. Other parts were unhelpful.

The fact that the amount represented only about half of the sum owed and that it was "in favour" or Mr Ayas's account presented a problem to his story.

The letter to the Cabinet Secretary

In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler, he cut out the references to the sum and Mr Ayas.

Mr Aitken told him it was his wife who paid the bill, when it was in fact a member of the Saudi entourage.

Sir Robin later met the then Prime Minister, John Major, who said Mr Aitken could dampen the speculation by producing the Ritz bill.

Sir Robin then called Mr Aitken for another meeting and it was then that he produced the bill.

Mr Aitken was forced to change his story and said that Abdul Rahman, another hotel guest and the nephew of Said Ayas, had paid part of his bill by mistake.

Mr Aitken told Sir Robin that he had "squared the circle" and paid Rahman back the other part of his bill.

He described it as an "unfortunate confusion" but the Guardian went ahead with a further article about Mr Aitken's weekend at the Ritz, which prompted the libel writ, according to Mr Waters.

Aitken's family alibi

According to his original false account, Mr Aitken insisted that he had not had business meetings during the weekend at the Ritz.

During cross-examination at the libel trial, he confirmed that his statement contained the "truth and the whole truth", Mr Waters said.

He claimed that his daughter and wife had spent some time in Paris over the weekend but left before he arrived. "The reality being, they had not been there at all," Mr Waters told the court.

The libel trial collapsed when documents obtained from British Airways showed that his family did not go to Paris but flew straight to Switzerland.

Mr Aitken had claimed his wife and daughter had travelled to Aiglon College in Switzerland, where Victoria was due to start school, via Paris, and that he had been delayed on official business and missed them.

He initially claimed he had stayed in Paris spending a quiet weekend, working on his biography of Richard Nixon and meeting family friends.

He then claimed his wife returned to the Ritz on Sunday to meet him after dropping off his daughter at the school, Mr Waters said.

But in fact his wife and daughter were never even in France.

Mr Aitken had claimed that he drafted a false document for his teenage daughter Victoria to back up his story only when inconsistencies emerged in his story.

The judge asked how old Victoria was at the time the statement was drafted because it was a "very grave" feature of the case that Mr Aitken involved his daughter in the crime.

After the collapse of the trial and his subsequent arrest, Mr Aitken made a statement to police admitting that he had lied, Mr Waters said.

In it, he said: "I deeply regret the lies I told and decisions I took to mislead a large number of people. "This is a burden I will have to bear for the rest of my life."

The defence

Evidence from Sir Malcolm Rifkind

Sir John Nutting QC, defending, called Sir Malcolm Rifkind to speak on Mr Aitken's behalf.

Sir Malcolm confirmed he had entered Parliament as an MP at the same time as Mr Aitken after the 1974 general election.

He said they had not had a close personal relationship but he had visited Mr Aitken's Westminster home on several occasions for meetings of the "Conservative Philosophy Group".

"I thought of him as a very able, intelligent and articulate MP, someone who had very considerable experience and who was always thought of as potential ministerial calibre," he said.

Mr Aitken was in a unique position later as a junior defence minister because of his good contacts with influential Middle East Royal families with whom Britain wanted to do business, Sir Malcolm said.

Sir Malcolm, who volunteered to speak on Mr Aitken's behalf, described him as the most able junior minister he had come across during his years in government.

He was "able and intelligent" but, most of all, his personal contacts in the Middle East turned out to be crucial when it came to protecting Britain's contracts abroad.

He had access to top levels of government in Saudi Arabia and other countries which were usually exclusive to the Prime Minister or senior cabinet members.

Sir Malcolm cited two separate occasions when Mr Aitken used his influence abroad to help persuade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia not to cancel billion-pound contracts with Britain and award them to other countries.

On the second occasion he had set up a meeting between King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the then premier John Major to stop a £4billion contract going to the United States.

The outcome safeguard many defence jobs in this country, said Sir Malcolm.

He had no reason to believe that Mr Aitken had ever benefited personally from his contacts and the amount of work he did while working for the government left him little time to do anything else. "I felt he was carrying out work in very responsible way," said Sir Malcolm.

"I had no hesitation in telling the Prime Minister that he had been a very impressive minister and the public interest had been extremely well served."

He had contacted Aitken and offered to speak in his defence, he said.

The benefits of a friendship with Prince Mohammed

Sir John Nutting QC said Aitken's close friendship with Prince Mohammed had provided a "valuable link" between the governments of Britain and Saudi Arabia, and it was against this background that he wanted the judge to view the events at the Ritz hotel.

The two men had met when Aitken was still a merchant banker and the director of a company looking after the prince's interests in Britain, Sir John said.

"The defendant and Prince Mohammed had formed, after their initial meeting, an enduring friendship which lasted up to the time during which both of them had positions in Government in their countries," Sir John went on.

Outlining six points he said he intended to cover, he said they included the extent of Aitken's contrition, and the consequences of the trial on his health, and on his family.

"If anyone supposes I am here to follow the slimy trail of every red herring which has been drawn across this case, they will be disappointed," he told the court.

Sir John said Aitken had planned to meet Prince Mohammed at the Paris Ritz on Friday 17 for dinner.

But Aitken was delayed because of an official visit for the reburial of General Wladyslaw Sikorski in Poland, and the appointment was cancelled.

The prince had to return to Geneva, and arrangements were made to hold the meeting there on Sunday, which was where and when it eventually took place, Sir John told the Old Bailey.

The bill at the Ritz

Aitken's bill at the Ritz was paid because of the "hospitality not untypical of Arabs", Sir John said. The bill was only a small sum to the Arabs and to Aitken at that time.

Sir John said it was this conversation about the bill which was the main cause of Aitken's downfall, but details of the conversation had "vanished long ago into the ether".

He added: "When later he realised the trap in which he had caused himself to fall, he began to tell a series of lies and half-truths which nearly six years later have brought him before your Lordship and into the dock of the Old Bailey."

Defence talks

He said when Aitken and the prince finally met in Geneva, they discussed Saudi Arabian security issues, especially the activities of Russian submarines as part of Iran's new arsenal of weapons.

"To meet this threat the Royal Navy had offered to lease to Saudi Arabia four Upholder submarines that were surplus to the Royal Navy's requirements," Sir John said.

"It's perhaps important to add in view of allegations made subsequently about the weekend that those Upholder discussions involved government to government negotiations or navy to navy leasing arrangements which had nothing to do with third party contractors, or businessmen or middle men or commission men or anyone else."

Sir John said Aitken had provided "generous and reciprocal" hospitality over a period of time, and it was a moot point whether the bill-paying incident had breached the guidance for ministers.

Allegations of sleaze

But the questioning from the newspaper had come at the height of "Tory sleaze" allegations and Aitken felt under pressure to keep his reputation clean.

The source of the tip-off to the Guardian had been Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of the Ritz, who had initially alleged that £1 million in cash was shared out at the meeting with Mark Thatcher and others.

Sir John said: "The allegation as to the meeting was simply untrue. The defendant has never been paid in cash or in kind for any arms deal."

It was to Aitken's "everlasting regret" that he had lied about who paid the bill - he had done so after speaking to Ayas who was under pressure from his employers to avoid publicity.

He was in a dilemma when later more allegations were made against him - he felt he had to clear his name with the libel action. Three of the allegations had been dropped during the course of that trial.

Sir John said Aitken felt he had no choice but to launch libel action against the Guardian despite the fact that it could expose him to admitting that he had lied about the Ritz bill.

He had been accused of serious offences, including corruption and arranging prostitutes for Arab friends, which he felt compelled to defend.

"He was faced with a very genuine dilemma," said the QC. "To say nothing and allow very serious allegations, the falsity of which he believed he could prove, to go unchallenged or to fight them and risk that in the Ritz bill he would have to tell a lie."

Questioned by the judge

The judge questioned why Aitken had not come clean about the bill at the time and then gone on to challenge the other points.

That, said Sir John, was not realistically an option because he had already said too much about the weekend at the Ritz to go back on his word and expect to be taken seriously.

Untrue allegations

Several of the allegations which had been made against him were later dropped, notably the claim that he had arranged prostitutes for Arab contacts.

It was also clearly untrue, said Sir John, that Aitken had tried to conceal his contacts in the Middle East and indeed the fact was well known by many of his parliamentary colleagues.

His former secretary, Valerie Scott, who had spoken to the Guardian and contributed to his downfall, had written to Aitken in January this year.

Her letter said: "I am sorry to say that the consequence of my interviews and witness statement was that they did contain many inaccuracies. Some of those were misrepresentations, some were mis-recollections, others were mistakes and others were caused by my words being taken out of context and being used in a way that now makes me feel uncomfortable."

She said her words had been "manipulated" into being unfair to Aitken in the articles and programme.

Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality by Jonathan Aitken – review
Aitken's anecdotes make for lively reading in a bracingly honest account of the Tory heroine's faults

Simon Hoggart
Wed 16 Oct 2013 16.30 BST First published on Wed 16 Oct 2013 16.30 BST

Slipping her moorings … Margaret Thatcher, with Denis, leaves 10 Downing Street for the last time as prime minister in 1990. Photograph: Lennox Ken/mirrorpix
Years ago I asked a section editor on the paper for which I then worked whether he was going to employ a particular journalist. "No, I won't," he replied, "because he is an incompetent, lazy, stupid, arrogant plagiariser, who can't even write. And I speak as a friend of his."

Which is rather the way Jonathan Aitken speaks of his friend Margaret Thatcher. Here is just a selection of the words he uses to describe her – either deploying his own judgment or that of people he quotes: phoney, bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, deplorable, unpleasant, alienating, opportunistic, confrontational, monomaniacal, disloyal, dysfunctional, snarky, pedestrian, hesitant, insufferably rude, foolish, arrogant, grudge-bearing and an anachronistic bigot.

Jim Prior found her "vindictive and nasty"; others spoke of "her tendency to fly off the handle too early, her capacity to get the wrong end of the stick and her reluctance to apologise". She was "the least collegiate politician I have ever met … this is because she has no friends". Others accuse her of "governessy hatred", of being a "stubborn Salome" who "liked to hog the limelight". Tim Bell, her favourite adman, called her "the old bat", and Bernard Ingham, her loyal press secretary, said she was "the most tactless woman I have ever met in my life".

And Aitken speaks as a friend of hers. They got off to a bad start. He ended a three-year affair with Carol Thatcher, and her mother said bitterly: "He made Carol cry." At a dinner party, shortly after she became Tory leader, he was asked about her Middle East policies, and said: "She knows so little … she probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus." This reached Private Eye, and her factotum Airey Neave demanded Aitken make an apology in person, in the division lobby: "She'll be wearing a green dress."

But he is, overall, a huge admirer. He believes she was sound and brave on most foreign affairs: the Falklands, the ending of the cold war, the liberation of Kuwait, and the euro (though he suggests that she rewrote history when declaring she was always against our membership of the ERM).

Her judgment was less reliable in domestic affairs. Aitken points out that she could not distinguish between the striking miners and Arthur Scargill, regarding them all as members of the enemy within. That contempt for the working-class people of the north and the Midlands brought a cost that the Conservative party is still paying. The poll tax: surely the product of a disordered mind? She began to treat the people closest to her with evident contempt, most of all Geoffrey Howe who received a bollocking in cabinet that no schoolteacher would be allowed to administer today. When the "stalking donkey", Anthony Meyer, stood against her in 1989, she had a good campaign team in place, but the whips warned her that on top of the handful of votes Meyer got, there were all the abstentions, spoiled ballots and dozens of MPs who had to be arm-twisted into supporting her. The situation was therefore far more dangerous than it appeared. She brushed their fears aside as the hobgoblins of lesser minds, and a year later insouciantly cleared off to Paris for a ceremonial summit, which she could easily have skipped. But she loved mingling with world leaders, and telling them where they were wrong. Meanwhile, she left behind as her campaign manager Peter Morrison, a lazy alcoholic, who believed all the fake pledges of support and spent much of the campaign asleep, drunk or both.

By the time of her defenestration, she had become the world's most powerful bag lady, of the type who harangue you at bus stops, and who are best ignored, except that you can't ignore the prime minister. You could call her, as a female King Lear, "a very foolish fond old woman", except there was little fond about her – apart from some engaging nonsenses. Just before the Falklands war ended in her greatest victory – which she won by ignoring or assailing almost all her own cabinet and a very substantial chunk of the Tory party in parliament, plus the president of the United States and his most senior officials – she could be found cooking the food at a children's party for the families of Downing Street staff. Admirable in some ways; barking in others.

By the end, however, she had slipped her moorings. Even one of her most devoted supporters, the right-wing MP Nick Budgen declared that she was "off her rocker". She retired (Aitken says her notorious "I shall be a very good backseat driver" remark was directed at George Bush rather than John Major) but devoted much of her life, like Ted Heath, to trashing her successor behind his back. We all need a hobby, and that was hers. (There's another good account of this in John Sergeant's book Maggie.)

The Fall of Thatcher could be staged, not least because hers was a very modern hubris. Having started out lacking in real confidence – her first cabinet was stuffed with grandees who opposed all that she stood for – she was brought down in the end by believing her own publicity. She adopted with wild enthusiasm the "iron lady" sobriquet coined by the USSR army newspaper, forgetting that everything in those Soviet rags was lies and propaganda. I recall a grandiloquent speech, after the fall, to American travel agents in Glasgow, who must have been puzzled to learn she had ended the cold war herself, with Ronald Reagan as Robin to her Batman. She could give solipsism a bad name.

The pleasure of Aitken's readable, even beguiling, book is in the anecdotes. He suspects that her breathtakingly arrogant attempt to stop Bernard Weatherill from becoming Speaker – something she had absolutely no right to do – helped bring her down. He arranged that Howe's killer speech in 1990 would be heard when the chamber was full, and in complete silence, giving it maximum effect. She realised then that the end was near, but couldn't grasp even then her own contribution to the coming catastrophe, and chose to blame the cabinet instead – "treachery with a smile on its face".

Then there was the time she went to holiday on Islay: the host family's noisy offspring meant she was unable to sleep, so she went for a walk in a hooded coat. Mistaken by a security officer for a sinister intruder, she was pinned to the wet moorland by a slavering police dog. For some anti-Thatcherites, that story alone will be worth the price of the book.

One day we might reach a reasonable assessment of Thatcher, somewhere between the adulation and the loathing: she achieved a reasonable amount economically at home (while pitching us into the tooth-and-claw capitalism we suffer today), had some influence on the world stage, and in the last few years in power lost the plot. This book, by an alarmingly candid friend, will go a long way towards helping find that balance.

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