One plot he didn't write

A conspiracy by Tory grandees has dented Lord Archer's campaign to become mayor of London
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HE may have spent much of the last decade cultivating a sizeable farm in Yorkshire, but Sir Timothy Kitson still knows a thing or two about helping his party's top brass.

When Sir Edward Heath was summarily ejected from Downing Street in 1974 it was Sir Timothy who moved out of his flat to accommodate the homeless ex-leader. Last week this voice from the past returned to help the new Leader of the Opposition in a rather different way. He did so by delivering a crushing blow to the political ambitions of Jeffrey Archer. Lord Archer is front-runner to be Conservative candidate in the race to become London mayor. His chequ- ered personal and political past makes him anything but a dream candidate for William Hague.

So it is safe to assume that when Sir Timothy called formally for an investigation into a lengthy list of allegations against Lord Archer by the party's new ethics and integrity committee, the Conservative hierarchy was less than distraught.

At Westminster the tea-room has been awash with speculation: was this a sophisticated Westminster plot, and was it organised by Mr Hague? The answer to the first question is - almost certainly, yes. As one Conservative apparatchik put it: "Since Sir Timothy retired from Parliament in 1983; it is beyond belief that no one put him up to this." Yet the culprit behind this attempted political assassination is not easy to identify. As with the best whodunits, not to mention several of Lord Archer's own plots, there is no shortage of suspects who have a motive.

With the brashness and energy that has characterised his political career, Lord Archer has devoted more time and effort to becoming London mayor than any other potential candidate, including Labour's Ken Livingstone. Almost as soon as the new government was elected last May, Lord Archer had established a campaign team, taking his message to party meetings in London, and travelling the globe to see how the job is done.

The darling of Tory activists because of his middle-brow, rabble-rousing style, Lord Archer quickly became favourite to win a party "primary". Gradually it dawned on growing numbers of Tories that as elected London mayor, he would have an unrivalled personal mandate from the voters and media exposure second only to the top Cabinet ministers - a dangerous position for someone judged unreliable.

For the multi-millionaire novelist the London campaign represented his final assault on the prize that has always eluded him. He may have millions in the bank, a list of best-selling novels almost as long as his arm and an enviable lifestyle, but Lord Archer has said privately that he would exchange it all for a short spell of real political power.

The character traits that have brought him success have alienated many within his party. Lord Archer's success in charming both Margaret Thatcher and John Major did not extend to the more blue-blooded end of the party. One Conservative MP argued: " He has a large number of enemies and the further up the establishment you go, the bigger the reservations. They don't like his Jack-the-lad persona, which offends against gravitas or propriety."

Even one Archer ally agreed last week: "If you take the hierarchy of the Conservative Party, I am sure you would find a collection of people who would find Jeffrey unacceptable, and some who would loath him".

THOSE will include senior party members who have been on the receiving end of his crude populism. For example Sir Archie Hamilton, chairman of the 1922 committee, was less than impressed by Lord Archer's speech at party conference calling for greater democratisation of the party than Sir Archie proposed.

It is no coincidence that the cause of his latest difficulties, Sir Timothy, is an A-grade Tory grandee. In the 1970s, as parliamentary private secretary to the prime minister, Sir Timothy's political alliance with Francis Pym was consolidated in the traditional Tory manner - they hunted together. Sir Timothy is a former whip and an ally of the former chief whip Lord Jopling, who farms nearby in Yorkshire. Lord Jopling, like many ex-whips, is no fan of Lord Archer. The whips' office is believed to have blocked John Major's attempts to give Lord Archer ministerial office. As one MP explained: "Whips tend to be cautious about people. If anybody has form they tend to give them the black spot, and Jeffrey has all sorts of form."

If none of this proves to be a Hague-ite conspiracy, those close to the party leader were not unwilling to cripple Archer's chances, and several have been happy to plunge the knife in. The possibility of an inquiry into his past had been the subject of debate in senior Tory circles. Indeed, one Telegraph columnist, well connected with the Tories, predicted such an eventuality two months ago. Among those thought to be hostile to Lord Archer's candidacy is Alan Duncan who, until his recent front-bench appointment, played a key role in Mr Hague's office.

Lord Parkinson, the party chairman, was not in the loop and did not appreciate being bounced into taking action against Archer, but Conservative Central Office put out a double-edged statement nevertheless. It ended with words that might not bode well for a candidate whose record has been called into question: "Integrity is one of the principles on which William Hague has said the party's future will be based. We are determined that the party's reputation must never again be sullied by an individual member."

Meanwhile, one front bencher last week boasted that the party was "getting its act together" and had lured Lord Archer into a disastrous defence of his record. "He has," said one senior Tory, "rebutted allegations that everyone had forgotten, and admitted that half of them were right." Worse, Lord Archer's explanation of why he bought and sold shares in Anglia TV on behalf of a Kurdish friend, Broosk Saib, while his wife was a director of the company, started to come unstuck.

IN LAST Tuesday's Evening Standard Lord Archer wrote: "What happened was that at a dinner party given by Sir Nicholas Lloyd, he suggested that if he had any money to invest he would buy shares in the smaller independent TV companies because they must all be ripe for takeover." Sir Nicholas later confirmed that the discussion took place, but said it occurred on 18 January 1994, four days after Lord Archer's share purchase. This sort of confusion gives the party leadership much more freedom to move against Lord Archer with impunity than Tony Blair has in his struggle to ensure that Mr Livingstone does not get Labour's nomination.

But the battle may not be over. In Sir Timothy's day, a Tory candidate accused of lacking the integrity to represent the party would have withdrawn gracefully. That may be the thought in the minds of those who yesterday floated the notion that John Major will use his friendship with the millionaire peer to persuade him to bow out. To quit would, however, be out of character. Lord Archer wrote in the Spectator last week: "The whole point of my life has been to keep trying, to keep moving forward, and when people knock me down to get up again."

The use of the ethics and integrity committee poses dangers for the Tories. If investigated and disqualified, Lord Archer's political career would be ended, and questions would be raised about his suitability to sit in the Lords. Under those circumstances he might well challenge the legal basis of the party's procedures in the courts. If cleared by the committee, however, there would be no stopping him.

As Sir Timothy returned to his well-earned retirement last week, Lord Archer showed no sign of throwing in the towel. In the peer's riverside London penthouse it was business as usual. Among his guests was the mayor of Indianapolis. Lord Archer's struggle continues. For the time being.

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