I ate Jeffrey's shepherd's pie

Simon Heffer warned Archer of trouble ahead. But when all politicians are lying one way or another,

I have drunk Lord Archer's Krug and eaten his shepherd's pie: you would expect no less of your Conservative Party correspondent. I have always had a soft spot for the old rogue, and I especially like his wife, one of the few heroic figures we have left. As I am not a member of the Tory party, he has never done me any harm. However, I thought it was brave not just of his party but of him to want him to be mayor of London.

About 18 months ago I was told by a high functionary of the party that there was no question that Archer would be allowed to become its candidate for mayor. The dirt the party had on him would be used to prevent it. No one had any idea of the perjury conspiracy: my informant said they would "get him" over the Anglia shares deal, the alleged Toronto shoplifting and other irregularities. He was, as we all know, wrong. I told Archer shortly afterwards that, if he had any sense, he would pack in the whole idea of being mayor. I made it clear his party had a pretty rough time in store for him if he persisted. He took a different view and, as it turned out, he was right.

To be fair to William Hague, he had no more idea that Archer had once sought to cause a witness to commit perjury than anyone else, including the I-told-you-so hysterics who have been enjoying their own periodic fit of morality these past few days. But, given the determination of some in the party's upper echelons to stop Archer on other counts - many nearly as embarrassing, if not so criminal - it remains astonishing that Hague did not pick up the stone and look underneath: an exercise hardly covered by the "half an hour" it reputedly took the so-called Tory ethics committee to give Archer a clean bill of health.

Since the debacle, Hague - who has been made to look a fool - has been trying to discount his former lavish embrace of Archer by being, to use one of his favourite words, "tough". There has been "tough" action, sacking him as candidate and removing the whip. There have been "tough" words, from Hague and his equally absurd party chairman, Michael Ancram, who, in his response to the latest allegations by the Times about the party treasurer Michael Ashcroft, began to sound more and more like a John Byrd and John Fortune sketch. None of this post facto toughness undoes the truth that Hague was warned by his old Oxford chum Michael Crick that there were many ghastly things in the woodwork. And that Hague chose to ignore it.

Hague had a similar problem with Archer to the one Tony Blair has with Ken Livingstone. There was grass-roots support for Archer in London, just as Livingstone enjoys. Had Archer been barred as a candidate, Hague would have faced a rebellion among the poor bloody infantry. This would have damaged further the not especially good chances of a Tory victory on 4 May 2000. However, that now appears to have been an act of weakness and a failure of leadership. Hague might, equally, have noted that Archer had many powerful friends - as well as a wide acquaintance among captains of industry, hacks and celebrities. However, he seems not to have grasped the difference between people who were happy to socialise with Archer and those willing to commend him as a standard-bearer for the party; though John Major and Lady Thatcher did that, too.

At all times the leader must be protected - even though Hague, with a simple fiat, could have torpedoed Archer at any time - and that is why so much emphasis has been put by the party's spin- doctors and spokesmen on Ancram's role. He was an ineffectual minister in the last government who became party chairman because there was no one else of any weight or experience who would do. I have never been able to take Ancram seriously since a conversation I had with him on the margins of the 1994 Tory party conference, when he justified the idea of early IRA prisoner releases on the grounds that, if the terrorist organisation to which these people had belonged was no longer active, they were unlikely to reoffend. He is that sort of bloke, and if Archer had told him the sun rose in the west, he'd probably have swallowed it.

There is also an element of a pathetic little party, wrecked at an election, denuded of much of its talent and starved of cash, coming up against people who, for a time, are bigger than it is. Archer was one such. Hague simply couldn't take on this rich, famous, immensely popular man until there was proof, as there is now, that he had done something so atrocious that it was safe to sink him. Ashcroft could be another: a man so rich that, for all the allegations about his probity, the party thinks it cannot afford to do without him.

This episode has damaged Hague's and Ancram's already limited credibility. It could not have come at a worse time: just as a corner appeared to have been turned, just as the party was picking up in the polls. It is now back to square one, and not just in London.

The Archer scandal is good for Blair. He now looks utterly sensible for having gone to such lengths to try to stop his own rogue candidate - though Ken's sins are purely ideological. Blair's aversion to democracy is, for a change, looking quite sensible.

Although the prima facie case against Archer is telling, his badness is not unique. We have just had restored to the cabinet a man whom some thought should have been prosecuted, less than a year ago, for not disclosing the full facts in a mortgage application. He thought he could get away with it, and did. Ministers tell lies all the time, on the radio, on the television and even in the House of Commons. So did their Tory predecessors. Spin-doctors are employed to distort the facts and to lie themselves when necessary. No wonder Lord Archer felt it hardly mattered what he sought to do with the truth: they were all at it.

It is all very well Hague getting "tough" and moralising, but he is a man who happily accepted office from a prime minister who refused to take responsibility for Britain's economic humiliation on Black Wednesday. Was losing £30 billion of the country's money in an afternoon and not having the decency to resign afterwards a lesser offence than asking someone to provide an alibi for a dinner date? If Hague thought Major was morally acceptable, no wonder he had no qualms about Archer.

The case demonstrates the terrible state in which the Conservative Party finds itself. But it is also a comment on the general state of public life. It is all because politics has come to be about being flash, rather than having ideological convictions. The very existence of spin-doctors and PR consultancies is an open encouragement to politicians to see how far they can go. Hague is just as culpable as the Prime Minister, though a lot less good at getting away with it.

What he and his benighted party need now is a long, corrective period of being bloody boring.

The author, a "Daily Mail" columnist, is our Conservative Party correspondent

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