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Sunday April 6, 2003
The Observer

So, Norman, any regrets this time?

Lord Lamont has kept some odd company since leaving politics. Now a company he chairs faces collapse. Jamie Doward reports

…Lamont's appeal to powerful businessmen must lie at least in part in his extensive political contacts. He is chairman of a little-known but hugely influential right-wing body called Le Cercle. Founded in the 1950s by France's Antoine Pinay and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer Le Cercle - also known as The Atlantic Circle - describes itself as an 'informal group of European and American professionals - politicians, retired ambassadors, former generals, lawyers and active participants in banking, oil, shipping, publishing and trading companies'.

Guest attendees have included Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, the Sultan of Oman, Romania's Illiescu and King Hussein of Jordan. Comparisons with the highly secretive Bilderberg Group are inevitable, especially as one attendee, the late Alan Clark, MP, suggested Le Cercle had close links to the CIA.

It is perhaps his links with Le Cercle which reinforce Lamont's most controversial business relationship, that with Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi, who was arrested in Britain last Monday. Auchi, who is known to have attended a number of Le Cercle meetings, made millions selling Italian warships to the Iraqi regime in 1980.

Lamont is a director of one of Auchi's biggest companies, Compagnie Internationale de Participations Bancaires et Financieres, the financial arm of General Mediterranean Holdings, which holds a stake in BNP Paribas and Jordan's Union Bank for Savings and Investment.

Auchi - a former Baath party activist who is thought to have been advising the UK Government on Iraq - was arrested on a French extradition warrant. Next month the corruption trial involving oil giant TotalFinaElf is expected to hear allegations that he channelled £28m commission from the oil company to buy a refinery in Kuwait. Auchi has denied any wrongdoing.

Whatever the outcome, Lamont could well look back on last week as the point his fortunes took another turn for the worse.

It may be some time before the peer who pocketed thousands of pounds from a Cheshire pipe-fitter and an Iraqi billionaire sings in his bath again.