Leading Article: The Archer farce does not destroy the case for directly elected mayors

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THE JEFFREY Archer tragi-comedy is important beyond London, and not just as entertainment. It reflects on two matters of national seriousness. One is the judgement of the Leader of the Opposition, and the other is the idea of directly-elected mayors for our big cities.

First William Hague. His immediate reaction may have been that Mr Archer's self-destruction was good news for the Conservative party, in that it removed a patently unsuitable candidate from the race. But Mr Hague is not free with one bound, because, unlike Tony Blair who had made his - rather different - reservations about Ken Livingstone unusually public, the Conservative leader had endorsed Mr Archer as "a candidate of probity and integrity". He could have said that Mr Archer was "a candidate of cheery populism", or he could have said, as Margaret Thatcher did, that he was a candidate with "a talent for getting into scrapes". But probity and integrity? Those words expose as hollow Mr Hague's pledge when he stood for the Conservative leadership not only to rid his party of sleaze, but of the "slightest suspicion of sleaze". That is the kind of undeliverable rhetoric which gives politics and politicians a bad name, since every voter in the land knew that Mr Archer had neither probity nor integrity.

This newspaper is a strong supporter of one member, one vote democracy within parties, and we strongly approve of Mr Blair's decision to let Mr Livingstone run, despite their disagreements. Their dispute is ideological, not ethical. Nor was there any reason to exclude Steven Norris, the Conservative former transport minister, on the grounds of behaviour verging on the caddish in his private life. But Mr Archer is different: he should have been excluded from the short list on the most cursory examination of his ethical record, or even the most cursory flick through Michael Crick's excellent biography, Stranger Than Fiction. Mr Hague had no excuse, because Mr Crick, a friend from college days, had written to him warning him in a friendly way that there were plenty of other skeletons which his lawyers had not allowed him to publish.

Given that Mr Hague had just set up an independent ethics committee to deal with precisely such "slightest suspicions of sleaze", he had a perfect opportunity to use it. Instead, the committee has been sharpening its pencils and deciding what kind of biscuits to serve with the tea.

Mr Hague could have earned a great deal of respect, and increased the Tory candidate's chances of winning, if he had blocked the man of fiction from the start.

The wider issue, however, is whether this shenanigans - like the Livingstone affair - demeans the case for directly-elected mayors. A Bill will be put before parliament to force reluctant local councils to hold referendums on the idea, so most of the population of Britain, which after all lives in the cities outside London, may get the chance to express an opinion.

Of course, both the main parties have made fools of themselves in London, leaving Susan Kramer, the little-known Liberal Democrat, the only candidate with a semblance of dignity. But that is democracy for you. It is a messy, coarse, unedifying business. And it is better than any of the alternatives. It is no use decrying the Americanisation of British politics, or the focus on issues of personal character rather than policy - democracy was ever thus. Remember Tony Benn's cant about "issues" rather than "personalities"? And it is as much use getting nostalgic for the idea of quiet municipal public service, aldermen and good works as it is for the high-rise blocks and Poulson-type scandals into which such traditions degenerated.

The London mayoralty race has turned into a kind of Celebrity Countdown, with Mr Blair's dream of charismatic, squeaky-clean candidates emerging from all walks of life disappearing in the autumn mist. One of the worries about the design of the London mayoralty is that, if yesterday's revelations had come out a year later, in the unlikely event of Mr Archer winning the election, it would have been difficult to remove him from the post. But that does not mean it would have been better not to have started down this road. The argument over the future of the capital's transport systems has become more heated and more likely to produce the right policy.

That same untidy vibrancy could jolt the local government of our other great cities out of their set ways - or renew the connection of good city governments with their peoples in ways which both the governors and the governed should welcome.