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Friend who turned against peer: The Archer affair

IT WAS almost too preposterous for the plot of one of Jeffrey Archer's own novels.

Even as he took his first steps in the race to become London mayor, a figure from his past was preparing to deal his aspirations a fatal blow.

Ted Francis, a former friend who had provided Lord Archer with a crucial alibi in the Daily Star libel trial, was already consulting the PR guru Max Clifford on how to handle fresh and destructive allegations.

Mr Francis, a writer and actor, is said to have acted in protest at the prospect of Lord Archer becoming mayor. He managed to gain pounds 15,000 in the process.

Lord Archer learnt of the scoop on Friday when he had an unexpected visit from the editor of the News of the World, Phil Hall. They spoke for 20 minutes at his penthouse in London, during which Mr Hall revealed the contents of the story it would run. Mr Hall played a recorded conversation between Lord Archer and Ted Francis, made two weeks ago.

Eleven hours later it was all over: Lord Archer, faced with further ruinous press coverage, had decided to step down.

Last night his campaign team was denying that the order to quit came from William Hague, despite a ringing condemnation of his behaviour by the Conservative leader. But Nadhim Zahawi, a campaign spokesman, was promoting a different version of events, insisting that "no pressure was put to bear on him by William Hague or the party whatsoever".

Recounting the events that led to Lord Archer's withdrawal, Mr Zahawi said Mr Hall's visit to Lord Archer's home had prompted a flurry of meetings and phone calls.

The first was an emergency meeting with his campaign staff. Mr Zahawi said Lord Archer then called William Hague to notify him of the story before travelling to the Houses of Parliament for a pre-arranged lunch. It was between 3pm and 8pm that he made his decision to stand down, said Mr Zahawi.

During these hours Lord Archer also phoned the public relations expert Lord Bell and lawyer Lord Mishcon to discuss his position.

Mr Zahawi said throughout the day Lord Archer had been in constant contact with his wife Mary and family, who supported him in his decision.

"I think Mary was very supportive and was happy to support him in whatever decision he made. It was his decision."

But mystery still surrounds the woman with whom Lord Archer dined on that evening 13 years ago. Mr Zahawi refused to comment on her status or occupation and was reluctant to say whether the peer was in contact with her.