Mind the pet leopard if you go round to Jeffrey's place

`What would Tories say if we treated crime like this: "Did you rob the bank?" "No." "Off you go then." '

THE ASTONISHING thing about the Tories' attitude to Jeffrey Archer is that most of us learn to spot pathological bullshitters at the age of 11.

At that point, one each is allotted to every class throughout the education system; just as every class has one shy kid who goes bright red whenever his name is read out, one psychotic kid who only comes in once a year to show off his air rifle, and one kid who's always sick on the bus on the way home.

And one kid who tells lies. Archer must have been magnificent at that age. "My dad's a captain in the SAS; I had it off with a married supermodel; we've got a pet leopard at home; guess who holds the world record for eating pickled onions - my brother - he did a whole bathful in 10 minutes."

Most of them grow out of it, but a few pursue their talent into adulthood. A landlord in a pub I used to go to was marvellous. He once pointed to a standard pool cue and said, "Who do you think gave me that? Go on, have a guess. John Spencer, 1978 Embassy world champion, that's who."

When he once had earache, he insisted that the doctor had told him it was the rarest earache he'd ever seen, and had flown in a specialist from India to look at it. On the day that Charles and Diana got married, he said the pub he'd been running at the time broke the south London record for money taken in a day, and, "also, right, guess what, Charles popped in to have a pint on his way to the wedding."

Everyone knew that the way to treat these stories was as entertainment. It would have seemed quite churlish to go back the next day bellowing: "Our investigations have led us to the files of every leading earache specialist throughout India, and none of them has any recollection of your illness. How do you respond to that?" But neither did anyone suggest that he become the mayor of London.

Most people had a similar attitude to Archer, which is why Hague's explanation for having allowed him to become the Tory candidate for mayor was so inspired. He said he'd asked Jeffrey whether he had any more skeletons in the cupboard, and Jeffrey had replied "no".

So what can you do, when you conduct a searing investigation process like that and the wily old fox still gives you the slip? And this is the party of law and order! What would they say if criminal investigations were run like that? "Did you rob the bank?" "No." "Right, well, off you go then."

Hague's method would certainly make the plots for Prime Suspect easier to write. Each one would start with Helen Mirren's scowling, "They just didn't crack. We even tried the `did you do it?' trick, but they're obviously professionals and said `no'."

But it can't just have been sheer stupidity that led Hague to be willing to let Archer stand. The ex-party treasurer Lord McAlpine offered a clue as to the main reason, saying it was getting to the point where the only people allowed to stand for office would be "monks and nuns". Although even that wouldn't have stopped Archer. He'd just claim he was Mother Superior at St Mary's convent in Weston-super-Mare.

But McAlpine's point is that we're setting the standards for those in public life intolerably high.

For who among us can honestly say we've never, not even once, asked a friend to lie about having dinner with them, in advance of a libel trial following the handing over of pounds 2,000 to a prostitute on a railway station platform?

Archer is accepted in the world of big business because big business is necessarily crooked. Companies sell arms to dictators, manipulate elected governments or jeopardise a region's food supply without a qualm. But they have to present themselves as ethical, so even if they've acted with a formal legality, that entails cover-ups and lies. Over the last 20 years, this "entrepreneurial spirit", has been worshipped, firstly by Thatcher and now by New Labour. So characters such as Maxwell and Archer were encouraged, aided and held up as icons.

Whereas other businessmen lie out of necessity, those like Archer appear to do so even when they don't have to. Archer's colleagues must simply hold him in the same regard that cricketers had for Geoff Boycott; recognising him as a bit odd but admiring him for spending every spare moment in dedicated practice.

But, as allegations mount, it could all unravel, leaving us to enjoy a positive fib-fest. Although the silliest fib of all is the one from Archer's spokesman Stephan Shakespeare, "I think the public have had quite enough of people lining up to kick this man's head in." Even his employer has never told a story as easily disproved as that.

So I have a suggestion for Archer to redeem himself. As he famously holds a stake in the Teletubbies, he should have a new series written, with an extra Teletubby based on himself. It would be an instant cult: "Eh- oh Dipsy, I can ride Po's scooter upside-down, I speak fluent rabbit, and I couldn't have spilled the tubby custard - I was having lunch with Laa Laa at the time."

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