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The Archer Affair: The lord in the penthouse is now down and out

JEFFREY ARCHER was a haunted man last night. Not only was there the prospect of a criminal investigation for persuading a friend to provide a false alibi, there was also the matter of civil action from Express Newspapers for the recovery of the massive damages and costs following the Monica Coghlan libel case. And hischerished political career was truly over.

Even by the standards of his tempestuous life, the scale and pace of the fall of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare was spectacular. In just 48 hours the man who would be the mayor of London, riding on the crest of his Labour opponents' disarray, found not only his one remaining political dream shattered, but himself shunned and isolated.

Paying back Express Newspapers the money he got from the Daily Star - pounds 500,000 in damages and pounds 700,000 in costs, along with 13 years' interest - could amount to more than pounds 1.4m. This would not break Lord Archer, a wealthy man. Possible criminal charges, for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, cannot, however, be settled with money. Lord Archer will have fresh in his memory the fate of his friend and fellow Tory politician Jonathan Aitken, recently jailed for 18 months. The judge who sentenced the former cabinet minister said the offences "struck at justice itself and the message has got to go out loud and clear that appropriate punishment will be imposed..."

Any hope Lord Archer may have had that his humiliating withdrawal from the mayoral contest would be the end of the matter, disappeared swiftly yesterday. Just before midday Scotland Yard received a formal complaint of deception against the former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party from the Daily Star. This morning a senior officer from the the Organised Crime Group of Specialist Operations will form a team to begin the preliminary inquiries, and start liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service.

Lord Archer and his friend Ted Francis - the man he persuaded to lie for him - will, say police sources, be questioned under caution "at the appropriate time". Legal experts said the fact that Mr Francis' evidence did not have to be produced in court would not rule out criminal charges - the "intention" to pervert the course of justice would be enough.

One QC, Owen Davies, said: "The mere act of one person asking another to give false evidence and that person agreeing would be an offence." Another QC, Jonathan Crystal, added: "Any attempt to persuade a witness to give false evidence is potentially a very serious offence and it is treated seriously by the courts."

Whatever happens in the legal front , hardly anyone now believes Lord Archer would be able to make another of his comebacks . The Shadow Chancellor, Francis Maude, said: "He has thrown himself to the wolves and there will be no coming back." There were, however, plenty of accusations and recriminations yesterday that this knowledge had come rather late, that the party's vetting system had failed and William Hague, Lord Parkinson and Michael Ancram have all been extremely complacent about the possible pitfalls of having Lord Archer as the candidate.

The Conservative hierarchy spent much of yesterday trying to distance itself from its former mayoral candidate. At the Old Vicarage at Grantchester, near Cambridge, Lord Archer, alone with his wife, Mary, must have been wondering how it had gone so badly wrong.

The circumstances leading to the exposure of this secret are intriguing. Mr Francis was not the ideal partner for Lord Archer to have in his illicit plan, and the choice is an example of the novelist's characteristic lack of judgement. Mr Francis has told friends that since they first met in about 1970, Lord Archer had been condescending and patronising, promising much to help him in his film and television career, but delivering little.

Lord Archer eventually gaveMr Francis pounds 12,000. Years later, to belittle Mr Francis, he described the payment as a loan, saying in front of an actress: "You want to watch this man, you know. I lent him pounds 20,000 once and I am still waiting to get back the money." Mr Francis recalled: "She was dreadfully embarrassed and I was deeply hurt. For a start it was untrue - it was only pounds 12,000 - and it was an investment, not a loan. He humiliated him in front of my peers; I don't understand why."

This was the man Lord Archer had turned to during the Monica Coghlan trial to provide him with a false alibi that the two men had been dining together at a London restaurant on the evening of 9 September, 1986. Lord Archer had said he wanted to protect the identity of his real companion, his former personal assistant, Andrina Colquhoun.

The need for the fabrication was, ironically, based on a mistake. The Daily Star had claimed Lord Archer had slept with Ms Coghlan on 9 September, but it later changed this to 8 September. Lord Archer already had an alibi for that evening. Thus, at the end, there was no need for the Francis alibi to be used.

It is unclear why Lord Archer would want to to protect Ms Colquhoun. However, it could possibly be because she had repeatedly featured with Lord Archer in gossip columns and, according to friends, he had promised Mary he would cut down on his association with her. Recently appointed deputy chairman of the party, he had also promised Margaret Thatcher that she did not need to fear any further embarrassment from him.

Two months ago, Mr Francis saw Lord Archer's campaign for the Conservative nomination for London's mayor gathering steam. He did what so many with a grudge and a secret do these days: he telephoned the publicist Max Clifford. Mr Clifford immediately turned to the potentially most lucrative customer, the News of the World, and meetings were set up with its journalists. There followed a classic Sunday tabloid sting.

Mr Francis called Lord Archer and told him that their concocted alibi had been discovered by a mutual acquaintance. In the conversation that followed, Lord Archer faithfully recounted for Mr Francis and the newspaper's tape recorder all the details of the deception.

An almost surreal turn of events followed. Last Friday, just as the News of the World was preparing to confront Lord Archer with its story, he called it. The managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, said: "It began extraordinarily, you could not make it up. Jeffrey - perhaps knowing something, sensing something - phoned up to actually offer an invitation to one of his famous shepherd's pie and champagne Christmas parties. We told him it would be a good idea if we came and saw him."

When the newspapers' executives met Lord Archer at his flat, the peer, according the newspaper, tried at first to brazen it out. But when he was handed the transcript of the tapes, he handed it straight back, saying: "I don't need this. I know what's in it."

William Hague was told about it on Friday afternoon, before it became public. At 10pm he spoke at length with Lord Archer and told him he must stand down. On Saturday morning Lord Archer made his public statement.

There was, however, one final twist to this tale of deception. The News of the World had sent Lord Archer details of what it intended to publish. It is claimed he promptly sent them to the rival Mail on Sunday. This may have been successful revenge of sorts by a man who has always loved intrigue, but scant consolation for his dreams of public life, now lying in ashes.