THE CHARM OF THE BLAZERED BOUNDER
Everyone has a yarn about Jeffrey Archer. In a spirit of humble duty Jasper Gerard launches an anthology IT WAS one of those slow, hungover days on the Times's diary column when a mild outbreak of influenza at the Queen Char- lotte's Ball would have constituted a scoop. 'Archer here,' barked the telephone voice, brimming with the authority of the parade ground. 'Do you know what day it is?"Er, Thursday?' ventured the throaty diarist. 'No, you cretin, today is the Prime Minis- ter's birthday, and do you know who he spent it with?' Baffled silence ensued. 'With me. You can write that, but this con- versation hasn't taken place. Goodbye.'
Jeffrey Archer is the chancer's chancer, who trades gossip and favours with the relentless enthusiasm of a floor-dealer. But unlike Westminster's drearier practitioners, he is not motivated by mere ambition; rather, he is high on the sheer adventure of being Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. As with a Cairo camel salesman who puts in one too many bids for your wife, he believes everything is for sale, and anything is worth a flutter.
Visiting Eton to see his son James (who was numbered, fleetingly, among the Flam- ing Ferraris), he approached a rather stiff beak. 'Why isn't my son in the athletics team?' he demanded. When dull factors such as speed were mentioned, his eye- brows twitched: 'Look, what would it take? How about Glyndebourne for life?'
Moral prudes might misconstrue such flamboyance, but Jeffrey has never been anything but generous in return for services rendered. John Nicolson, a BBC Breakfast News presenter, introduced Archer to many of the then struggling Glasgow artists who now form the Brit Art establishment. Thanks to Nicolson, the famous Picasso next to the loo has been joined by such modern extravagances as 'Sausage, Egg and Chips' (bagged by Archer for £200). When the peer ventured to the young Nicolson that he must have a fine collec- tion himself, Nicolson demurred, saying he couldn't afford one. 'Well, next time you see something you really like,' said Jeff, 'just telephone me and I will send round a car with the cash.'
Since the death of Alan Clark, Archer has become the nearest British politics can boast to a personality. Everyone, from the hotel footman to the party chairman, has a yarn about him, and here I offer a few, in a spirit of humble duty to the noble baron, in the hope that they will inspire other recol- lections and set the snowball rolling.
Half of the stories are fictitious, and if they were ascribed to anyone else they would seem ludicrous, but because they are about Jeffrey they appear quite plausible. Indeed, when a friend is asked about Archer's connection with the prostitute, Monica Coghlan, they reply: 'The thing about Jeffrey is that he is actually gormless enough to pay a tart he has never met, just out of niceness.'
He once had lunch with a City editor and suggested that they should go into partner- ship: using your tips and my cash, Archer enthused, we could make a killing. He did not suggest that the editor should use inside information, but he demonstrated an endearing naivety as to how such an arrangement might he interpreted.
Many see the charm of the blazered bounder; others are less certain. While driving an associate back to Westminster after lunch, he said that he had to call a `great friend' who was dying of cancer. Before picking up the car, phone, he turned to his driver: `What's her name again?' In similar fashion, arriving in Dar- lington for a book-signing session, he announced to the reception committee: `I can't think why I agreed to come to this God-forsaken place.' A cold, cut-glass voice responded: `There is a London train waiting on platform one. I suggest you board it.' One Tory grandee recalls break- fasting with Archer during a Conservative party conference when John Major was prime minister. A telephone call came through to Archer's suite, whereupon he airily ushered his guest out of the room boasting that it was a private call from `the PM'. The grandee was surprised therefore when he turned on the television in his own room to see the PM speaking live in the conference hall.
Not everyone finds Archer's sense of superiority becoming. He was briefly the campaign manager for Peter Lilley's doomed attempt to lead the Tories. He was swiftly manoeuvred sideways, not only because old heads counselled that to be associated with Archer was dangerous, but also because Lilley rather resented having Archer introduce him at meetings ea `a very nice young man' — particularly as the former Cabinet minister was, at the time, 53.
In an age bereft of ideology, Archer is hooked on politics as a game. He enthused about a left-leaning young television celebri- ty to John Major, and suggested that they should persuade Labour to select him. Another time, he leant across a lunch table to confide in an old Lobby hand about his latest escapade: 'But for God's sake, don't tell anyone.' When they ran into each other a few weeks later, Archer looked puz- zled: 'Why didn't you use that great story I gave you?'
Everything about Archer is mono- grammed. At his regular table at Shep- herd's, he orders the `Archer salad'. Over Coca-Cola, he dispenses diet tips (quack- ery in the main, such as refrain from eating fruit after lunch as it sits heavily on the tummy). His desire to help extends to sending diet sheets to those he considers overweight, accompanied with a bill for f.50 (all for charity, naturally). Such zeal seems odd in the Tory party, a bastion of non-belief. Indeed, his mayoral website suggests he could probably fight on a joint ticket with another outcast, Ken Living- stone: bonds for public transport, even free milk for children. (Has he, one won- ders, cleared this with his devout support- er, Lady `milk snatcher' Thatcher?) It also includes unfortunate truisms: those who commit small crimes in one's youth, we are told, tend to commit bigger crimes in adulthood.
His defeated rival Steven. Norris still har- bours private hopes that Archer might be forced to withdraw. If so, it will probably be because of his purchase of shares in Anglia Television (director: Lady Archer) despite promising the board he would not do so. `I wouldn't be surprised if the gov- ernment didn't take another look at what really did happen,' says Sir Timothy Kitson, who wanted Archer referred to the Tory ethics committee (which has still never sat). `His trick is to sling writs around, which he learned from Robert Maxwell, but things come out in the end.' Kitson is meeting William Hague tomorrow, and will warn the party leader not to associate himself too closely with the novelist. Other than availing himself of the gym below Archer's penthouse, Hague has been less responsive to Jeff's blandishments than either Mrs Thatcher or John Major.
The Archer enterprise supports a verita- ble cottage industry of hacks, snouts and snoopers. Most prominent among them is Michael Crick, whose biography, Stranger Than Fiction, would encourage most public figures to take early retirement in Lapland. As well as uncovering unpleasant truths about him (which was news even to Archer), it raised now familiar questions about his CV, his deals, even the great Toronto suit scandal of 1975.
A close friend reports that Jeffrey spent two days reading the book in a folly at the bottom of his Grantchester garden, then burst into tears. Crick has just written to the Lord Chancellor complaining about an incident involving him and Archer's chauf- feur outside Central Office. So closely is Archer now scrutinised that even his chauf- feur — a former SAS man — is the subject of fevered speculation by Archerologists.
Crick and co. see Archer as a monster.
Yet even his detractors cannot claim that he is malicious (though the authoress Kitty Kelly has complained that Archer made surprising remarks about Jews at an Amer- ican charity dinner). He is fun; kind even.
The only one he hurts is himself (and, perhaps, his wife Mary). And when not bragging about how much he has raised at a charity auction, he has been known to send himself up CI am one of the few peers who has bought his own ermine'). Yet he is as safe as an unguided Exocet in an oil refin- ery. In the Coghlan libel trial, Archer's brief was Bob (now Lord) Alexander. According to Adam Raphael, another Archerologist, Alexander gave his relieved client some important advice about his future conduct. 'He ignored it, of course,' ventures Raphael. The nature of the advice, as the nature of the man, remains a mystery.
Jasper Gerard is special writer on the Times.