Hague dodges debate over Lord Archer

WILLIAM HAGUE yesterday attempted to distance himself from controversy surrounding Lord Archer's campaign for the post of mayor of London.

In a flurry of charge and counter-charge throughout this week, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare replied to a number of long-standing allegations about his colourful past - only to find that one of his alibis was shaky, and that his answers had in some cases raised more questions.

The threat posed by Lord Archer's candidacy was illustrated yesterday when questions about him took over a press conference held by the party leader before the Welsh Conservative Party conference at Llangollen.

Mr Hague told reporters that it was up to London party members to choose their candidate in the new one member, one vote process that he had introduced.

"I'm not going to endorse or to express disapproval of any of the possible Conservative candidates," Mr Hague said. "It's up to the members."

He added: "I have the confidence to say to my members: you decide."

Asked whether he was happy with Lord Archer's indication that he would stay in the race, Mr Hague replied: "I don't get involved in campaigns within the party for mayor of London. It's up to the members and it's up to the candidates to decide whether they want to be candidates."

Mr Hague's replies were taken in some quarters as a calculated snub to Lord Archer, which they were not.

But the Llangollen exchanges illustrated the difficulty and potential embarrassment that would be created if Lord Archer did decide to throw his hat into the ring.

At that point, there is no doubt that allegations about Lord Archer's past would be referred to the party's newly created Ethics and Integrity Committee, set up, in Mr Hague's own words, "so that at last the reputation of our party can be protected from those who damage it through misconduct and dishonesty".

The party could then become impaled on the same kind of difficulty the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee has faced - how can a body which is not a court of law judge allegations of "misconduct and dishonesty" without an open process of prosecution and cross-examination, and full appeal?