Jail term threat to former Tory MP

RUPERT Allason, the former Tory MP who is accused of hiding his assets to avoid paying damages to the publisher Random House, was threatened with a lengthy jail sentence yesterday.

High Court judge, Mr Justice Neuberger, said Allason, 50, had committed a "serious contempt" of court by failing to comply with a High Court order to provide details of all his assets and income within a specified time limit.

Allason lost a case against the publishers last year and was ordered to pay indemnity costs of 200,000 after falsely claiming to have ghost-written a book by the "fifth man" in the Cambridge spy-ring, John Cairncross. He claimed to have ghosted The Enigma Spy for Mr Cairncross and said he owned half the copyright after he died.

The former MP for Torbay, who made a career as the espionage writer Nigel West, was described during last year’s hearing as "one of the most dishonest witnesses" the judge, Mr Justice Laddie, had encountered.

Allason told the trial judge that the costs awarded would mean his "financial destruction" and has maintained he does not have assets to meet them.

Yesterday, Mr Justice Neuberger said Allason’s action against Random House had been an "unmitigated disaster" for him and had ended with the trial judge making "very adverse" findings about him.

In the action, which began on Wednesday, the publishing house had sought to commit Allason to jail for contempt over his failure to comply fully with an asset-freezing and disclosure order made in the High Court in March after he failed to pay interim costs of 140,000 ordered by Mr Justice Laddie.

Mr Justice Neuberger said the publishers had always feared Allason would resist, or render himself unable to meet any costs.

Allason had produced sworn statements about his assets in March this year, saying he had no interest in any properties and was unable to provide bank statements for his two companies, Westintel Research and Westintel Ltd, or company accounts.

Random House applied to the High Court for new orders against Allason but he failed to comply within the time limit.

Random House alleged Allason was hiding his assets and behaving in a dishonest way to make it as difficult as possible for the publishers to recover its money.

Allason has pursued more than 20 civil court actions, often representing himself, most of which he has won. One exception was when he sued over an entry in the Have I Got News For You 1997 diary, which referred to him as a "conniving little s..t". Glancing at the battery of BBC lawyers, he invited the jury to consider the full might of the BBC’s legal department as he sat with a small satchel, a glass of water and an Oxford dictionary.

Despite calling his elderly mother to give evidence about the distress that the remark had caused, he lost the case, with some estimates putting his legal bill at 50,000.

Among his writs, there was even one for his ex-wife Nicky, in which Allason demanded the heiress pay half the cost of the upkeep on their former home in the Belgravia district of London. His successful cases are thought to have netted him several hundred thousand pounds.

Allason’s antics as an MP earned him as much of a dubious reputation as his passion for litigation.

He was known at Westminster as the Rebel without a Pause and the Bermuda Triangle, the latter nickname resulting from the time he missed a critical confidence vote in July 1993 which almost destroyed the then Conservative government.

Allason had reputedly flown to Bermuda, where he had a property, then started to send faxes to different locations, none of which pinpointed his whereabouts, to try to justify his absence from the Commons for the vital vote.

"I can only say that I have never supported the Maastricht Treaty," he said at the time. "What do you want me to do? Vote with the Opposition?" Wherever his true whereabouts, the whips decided to relieve him of the party whip, and also reported his conduct to his local party organisation.

But Allason is not short of admirers either. Even his enemies have admitted that his knowledge of the secret world of espionage agents is unrivalled and that he is brimming with charm.

One of his books on MI5 was threatened with an injunction from the Attorney General, a move attributed to the veracity of the information of his sources, whom he claimed, "just knocked on the door one night". One friend said of him: "If he does push the boat out too far, he can always row it back with his dazzle and his charm." Allason described himself in a Who’s Who entry as someone who likes to "sail close to the wind".

In the 1970s, Allason took an interest in the Maharishi and transcendental meditation "purely as a mental exercise", and once did duty as a special constable, saying he found the uniform especially useful, not least to secure a good viewpoint at a royal wedding.

His disarming manner, boyish looks and sheer cheek are said to have got him out of most scrapes, but commentators reckon he will need more than front and luck if he is to escape a lengthy jail sentence.