The best-selling novelist with a rare gift for inaccurate precis

WHEN LORD ARCHER of Weston-super-Mare decided to run for mayor, he sat his family down for a chat. "If I go for it," he said, "we're all going to have to face the past." His critics might have responded: "Which past?"

For the truth of Lord Archer's life story has always suffered from what his wife, Mary, called "inaccurate precis". Veering between triumph and disaster, it has been shrouded in a haze of half-truths and exaggerations. As he withdrew his candidacy yesterday for the one job that he believed would ensure his place in history, there was a certain poetic justice that it was a lie that deprived him of it.

Jeffrey Howard Archer was born in Somerset in April 1940. Even at its beginning his life was mired in confusion. On his birth certificate, his father, William, a bigamist and fraudster, was described as a "journalist", which he was not.

The young Jeffrey Archer attended Wellington, a small private school near Taunton - not the more prestigious college in Berkshire. He left without A-levels but thanks to his athletic prowess won a place to study for an education diploma at the Department of Education at Oxford. Although he was only loosely attached to the university, his early acquaintances were left with the impression that Lord Archer had been "at Oxford", just as a certificate from a body-building course was later mistaken for an American university degree.

Nonetheless, he became president of the university athletics club and was chosen for the British Olympic team, developed an interest in politics and joined the Oxford Union.

From early on, his goals were to make a name for himself and to make money. He once said that when he was three, he wanted to be four. When he was four, he wanted to be prime minister.

After Oxford, Lord Archer became a public relations officer and fund- raiser working for the European Movement and the United Nations, where he faced minor allegations of inaccurate expenses. Brushing them aside, he married Mary, a brilliant research graduate, in 1966, won a seat on the Greater London Council a year later and by 1969 was MP for Louth, in Lincolnshire.

But within five years he was close to broke, thanks to a rash investment. He left Parliament and decided to write his way out of financial disaster. Within a year, he had published Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, an instant best-seller. He has now sold 120 million books worldwide and has a fortune measurable in tens of millions.

But riches were never enough. Political ambition remained. He bounced back to become deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985, only to resign over the Monica Coghlan affair, a peculiar encounter with a prostitute. The story raised more questions than it answered, yet Lord Archer proved triumphant in court. He won pounds 500,000 damages after explaining that he had paid her pounds 2,000 only to help her escape press attention.

Political damage had been done, but the irrepressible Lord Archer remained an energetic figure in the party, the darling of the constituencies and of Baroness Thatcher. By the 1992 election, he was the Tories' unofficial cheerleader. He was created a life peer for his efforts.

But trouble struck again. In 1994 Lord Archer made a profitable investment in shares of Anglia TV just before the announcement of a merger deal. Lady Archer was a non-executive director in Anglia, and an insider trading investigation ensued. Lord Archer was exonerated, but the whiff of scandal remained.

Yet the challenge of serious office still beckoned. And with the announcement that London would have its own mayor, Lord Archer laid his claim to the title. "I don't feel that I've achieved anything politically and I don't really want to leave this earth having been a dilettante on the sidelines," he said recently.

He threw his heart and soul into campaigning, visiting every constituency, surrounding himself with wealthy backers to avert the charge that his own wealth had bought the job. But today, once more, his dreams lie in tatters, with the admission that during the Monica Coghlan affair, he did not tell the absolute truth.

"Yes, I was young once and yes, I have made a number of mistakes," he said recently. "Yes, I am human, which may be the reason I never cast the first stone."