The Archer Affair: Hague ignored warnings and is now in the worst crisis since he became leader

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE was facing his most difficult political crisis since he became Tory leader as the Archer affair rebounded on him in spectacular fashion last night.

More than two years after Mr Hague was elected on a pledge to clean up the party's image, his personal decision not to investigate the maverick peer has been exposed as perhaps his worst error of judgement to date. Lord Archer's career may have ended in disgrace, but the revelations about his alleged conspiracy to pervert the course of justice have left Mr Hague with a disaster entirely of his own making.

Despite his recent dominance over Tony Blair in the House of Commons, the fiasco once again raises questions about his ability to tackle the type of allegations that dogged and ultimately brought down John Major's government.

With Mohamed Al Fayed and the former minister Neil Hamilton battling it out in the libel court, Lord Archer's resignation has certainly ensured that Tory sleaze is back in a big way.

The failure of Mr Hague and his senior advisers to see the obvious dangers of the millionaire novelist's bid for mayor of London contrasted starkly with his original mission to sweep out fraud and corruption.

Within weeks of his election as leader, he set up a new ethics and integrity committee, chaired by the distinguished QC Elizabeth Appleby. The rules of the committee state that when a problem arises its function is "to consider whether the complaint is well-founded or not, and if well-founded to entertain it".

Yet the committee has not met once since its inception in 1997, despite the controversies surrounding both Lord Archer and, as first revealed by The Independent, the blocking of a peerage for the party treasurer, Michael Ashcroft.

As far back as June 1998, the former Tory MP Sir Timothy Kitson submitted a complaint, asking the committee to investigate recent allegations about Lord Archer's dealings in Anglia TV shares, over which he had previously been cleared by Department of Trade and Industry. Sir Timothy had asked the party chairman, Lord Parkinson, to instigate an inquiry, but was rebuffed.

Unfortunately for Sir Timothy, the decision on whether to refer a complaint to the committee rested with the board of the Conservative Party, which is dominated by Mr Hague and Lord Parkinson's successor as party chairman, Michael Ancram. On the instructions of Mr Hague, the decision was made to take no action. Lord Archer was free to stand for, and ultimately win, the Tory nomination for mayor.

At about the same time, Michael Crick, Lord Archer's unauthorised biographer, also wrote a personal letter to the Tory leader, offering to submit allegations against the peer that remained unpublished. Mr Crick, a friend of Mr Hague from Oxford University, said yesterday that he had warned of at least six damaging stories about Lord Archer that could emerge.

The journalist received a terse reply five weeks later from Sebastian Coe, Mr Hague's political secretary, which stated that the letter and its contents had been "noted". Again, no action was taken.

Sir Timothy, one of Mr Hague's predecessors as MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, said yesterday that he felt he was "knocking my head against a brick wall," when he complained first to Lord Parkinson. "He was the party chairman, it was his job, his responsibility and he didn't do it. I think it would have saved a lot of embarrassment and a lot of hassle." The committee should now "run over" future mayoral candidates, he said yesterday. "This is a very important candidate position and we cannot afford to have any more mistakes."

Unquestionably popular among the grass roots and invaluable as a fund- raiser for the party, Lord Archer was a"blind spot" for Margaret Thatcher and John Major.Although initially reluctant, William Hague followed their lead - he and Mr Coe even began to use Lord Archer's private gym for their thrice- weekly judo sessions together.

Before Lord Archer was cleared by the party's London mayoral executive, Mr Ancram called him in to Conservative Central Office to ask if there were any more "skeletons" in his closet. He was assured there weren't. Lord Archer said at the time: "I may have made a mistake, I often make mistakes in life, we all do, but if you think you're going to have a saint for this job, I'm certainly not your man."

The millionaire novelist then went on to fight Steven Norris in a sometimes bitter contest for the Tory candidacy, before winning the one-member, one-vote selection ballot by a huge margin. On the day the result was announced, both Mr Hague and Mr Ancram seemed to distance themselves from Lord Archer by not appearing at photocalls with him.

However, such reticence was abandoned by Mr Hague during the Tory party conference in Blackpool last month. After Lord Archer's barnstorming acceptance speech, with Lady Thatcher cooing her approval in the audience, Mr Hague made a great show of being seen shaking hands with his candidate.

Worse still, the Tory leader went on Channel 4 News to give an endorsement that will now haunt him. "This candidate is a candidate of probity and integrity - I am going to back him to the full," he said. No speech writer, no adviser, no assistant could be blamed for Mr Hague's remarks this time. The decision to give such unequivocal support was his.

As recently as a fortnight ago, the Conservative leader was warned once again by Sir Timothy at a private dinner that he should look closely into Lord Archer's affairs. Nothing was done.

Viscount Whitelaw, the former Home Secretary and deputy Tory leader, once said that Jeffrey Archer was "an accident waiting to happen".

As he picks through the wreckage of yet another scandal today, William Hague must be ruing the fact that he failed to heed such wise counsel.

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