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Comment: She's addicted to sleaze

Mary Archer has not merely put up with a horrible husband; she has actually profited from his behaviour

e should stop asking ourselves why women stay with mad, bad and dangerous men. Not because it's not worth asking, but because it is usually a rhetorical question, asked as if there were no answer. e ask it as if we were asking ourselves whether we would stand by a shyster like Jeffrey Archer.

Mary Archer presents us with a challenge: she is not paralysed by her own powerlessness. This is not a woman who lives in fear, whose freedom of movement has been seized by a man who has taken control of her resources, her networks and her self-respect. No, Mary Archer has not merely put up with a horrible husband; she has profited by him.

His may be the unacceptable face of capitalism but he showers her with its endowments. She harvests power and influence from the consequences of his alleged corruptions. She acquires a state of grace amid his disgrace. As a stalwart of London's Tory circuit puts it, "She's got the halo, he's got the horns."

Indeed Mary the mother of all Tory wives emerged on the crest of his shame. He didn't win that libel action against the Daily Star and Express Newspapers in 1987; she did. The judge, Mr Justice Caulfield, invented Mary Archer when he invited the jury to remember her in the witness box: "Your vision of her will probably never disappear. Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? ould she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance? Has she had a happy married life? Has she been able to enjoy, rather than endure, her husband Jeffrey? Is she right when she says to you - you may think with delicacy - `Jeffrey and I lead a full life'?"

hat she did not confess, however, was that they were also leading separate lives - she deep in the Cambridge countryside as a clever chemistry don and chorister, visited sometimes at the weekend by a husband whose marriage and mistresses seemed to belong to the upper-class mores of another age. "It was well known in London that he lived with his secretary and that Mary accepted it," recalled a Conservative activist of the 1980s.

But Mary Archer's testimony and her unexpected tears in the witness box were consummate propaganda. She was both sanctified and sexualised. She basked in glory reflected from another poor woman, Monica Coghlan, the hard-up prostitute whose life seems doomed to be stalked by the spectre of a Lord whose mess endlessly returns to haunt her.

hen more than a decade later Mary Archer again emerges ennobled, Monica Coghlan is only exposed. She is doorstepped while Mary Archer last week invited the mass media - of whom she speaks only with contempt - into her kitchen. It is just like when she invited the media into the garden of the Old Vicarage at Grantchester after the News of the orld broke the story of Archer's alleged liaison dangereuse with Monica Coghlan.

The mise-en-scene choreographed by Mary Archer is not just that of a woman standing by her man, but a woman for whom something is more important than self-respect, or even her husband's reputation. This cold, clever woman orchestrates the performance of loyalty as if she finds excitement in his abasement.

hether she invites abasement is hardly our business. And yet she has made it our business. There is something in this woman that is not only cool and clever, but unhappiness cauterised. Does she feel no pain?

She invokes "the rough with the smooth" as if it were the landscape of her life. Loyalty, she insists, not sexual fidelity, is the meaning of marriage. If we are to take her at her word, then marriage is emptied of ethics and the aspiration to domestic democracy that is cultivated by contemporary women of another class and political culture.

This is not to say that she doesn't mind her husband's sleazy, scandalous reputation; it is to suggest that just as she always alludes to her attraction to his energy and enthusiasm, she is crucially connected to his degradation. Is there something in her that is so debased that she is attached to debasement?

That Mary Archer is Jeffrey Archer's material beneficiary is borne out by the sequence of scandals: Jeffrey Archer went bust - unbeknown to his wife - in 1973 when he invested in Aquablast, a company that collapsed. He started writing to redeem his fortunes. hen he prospered and resumed his underwriting career at Lloyd's, he rewarded his wife's fortitude with pounds 100,000 for her to invest. She became a Lloyd's Name. Her husband sponsored her powerful profile at Lloyd's.

Michael Crick in his forensic biography of Archer comments that, even before their sons were dispatched to Rugby and Eton, Jeffrey and Mary were rather absent parents - he was based in London and, although she lived with them in Cambridge, her research into solar energy took her away on the international conference circuit. Their son illiam was heard to say: "Daddy lives at home but Mummy lives in an aeroplane."

After the libel trial she instantly acquired a public persona that was swiftly rewarded by public positions. This was the kind of woman the men of the Establishment could do business with. She became a director of Anglia Television and in 1987 was elected to the hitherto masculine bastion, Lloyd's Council, after a formidable publicity campaign on her behalf.

Mary Archer loyally defended her husband again when he was investigated for alleged insider-trading in 1994 (by now illegal) when he began dealing in Anglia Television shares while she was a director, despite a rule adopted by the Anglia board in 1992 that no relatives or associates should deal in Anglia equity between the end of the year and the publication of the annual results in March.

If some political commentators regarded his mayoral crusade as vulnerable to a sleaze bomb still waiting to explode, Mary Archer remained one of his most ardent advocates. As Lady Archer, the spousal perks of the peerage were modest. As the wife of the Mayor of London she would have acquired a real place - albeit by proxy - in London politics as a first lady.

'Tis ever thus in the Tory firmament. The party has depended on its collective wife for fund-raising and electioneering, but - with one exception - it never offered women power: only proximity to it.

Mary Archer has put herself and her skills at her husband's service. She basks in his risks. His rise and fall provides the allure of visceral excitement. If power is an aphrodisiac, so, presumably, is a megalomaniac's humiliation. e may not see in this bad boy a potent seething Mr Rochester, but when this self-defined "dispassionate" woman stands by her humbled husband, she is by no means abject. She is awesome.

hatever the personal frisson of this fatal attraction to abasement, the party is over - no one believes that these people, in their shame and decadence, have any personal or political currency worth exchanging.

Lord Snowdon snapped it mischievously in his portrait of the Archers, showing an Elizabethan Mary finally radiant as she holds her husband's daft disembodied head under her arm. Finally she is shown to be the first among contemptible equals.