The whole truth - until now

THE LIBEL CASE; The prostitute, the alibi and the judge's comment on the `fragrant' wife became the stuff of legend. So, after today, will the falsehood. Mark Rowe reports
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The Independent Online
TWELVE YEARS ago Lord - then Jeffrey - Archer was jubilant. He had just been awarded pounds 500,000 after suing a national newspaper which had accused him of sleeping with the prostitute Monica Coghlan. Today, that victory, so sweet at the time, has come back to haunt him, leaving his long-cherished dream of becoming mayor of London in tatters.

The High Court libel case was the stuff of fantasy: The Daily Star had suggested that Lord Archer, then deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, had had "kinky" sex with Ms Coghlan and then given her pounds 2,000 to keep quiet. It said he had also paid her pounds 70 for the 10-minute sex session.

At times the titanic three-week courtroom battle, described as the most sensational libel trial since Oscar Wilde's, developed into high farce - and high-class entertainment - as the jury learnt of the spots allegedly on Lord Archer's back and even Little Red Riding Hood made an appearance. The pounds 700,000 costs made it, at the time, the fourth most expensive libel case in history.

During the trial Ms Coghlan said that she and Lord Archer first met on 8 September 1986. At the time she was wearing black fishnet stockings, black patent shoes, a black handbag and black PVC wet-look shirt, with a black leotard underneath and a white chunky-knit jumper. She said Lord Archer approached her from an alleyway in Mayfair, central London. For his part, Lord Archer said he was with three friends at a smart restaurant in London's West End until 1am. Later, though, he told a reporter from the Today newspaper that he had been at a "meeting" with 50 people. He said he had only ever met one prostitute, years earlier, and only for research for a book he was writing.

Ms Coghlan said they went to a hotel in Victoria, where they had sex for 10 minutes. Afterwards, when asked what he did for a living, Lord Archer allegedly told her he sold cars. She said she was later approached by another client, the journalist and lawyer Aziz Kurtha, who first took the news of Lord Archer's alleged involvement with Ms Coghlan to the News of the World. He told her that Lord Archer was famous and that she should approach the press to sell her story. She then repeatedly phoned Lord Archer as she became worried about the increasing media interest urging her to name him publicly.

Mr Kurtha was a defence witness for the Daily Star and told the trial that he "clearly" saw the millionaire author meet Ms Coghlan. He said the street had been broadly lit and he was able to see Lord Archer leave his car and walk across the road with Ms Coghlan towards him until he was "not more than five or six feet away". He had told her: "Do you know who this is? It's your lucky day ... you've hit the jackpot."

Lord Archer denied all that, saying he had never met Ms Coghlan but had taken pity on her after she repeatedly phoned him - the first time was on 25 September 1986 when she called herself "Debbie". He said he then arranged to meet her at Victoria station and give her, via an associate Michael Stacpoole, pounds 2,000 so she could leave the country with her son while he nailed the stories as false (the conversations were taped by the News of the World).

The judge, memorably, described Lord Archer's wife, Mary, as "fragrant" and a vision of elegance and radiance. In contrast, he described Ms Coghlan as someone who traded in "unloving, rubber-insulated sex".

Lady Archer stood by her man. In one of the more surreal episodes of the trial, the jury heard about the number of spots - or otherwise - on his back. Lady Archer undermined the allegations by insisting that her husband did not have a spotty back, one of the call girl's claims. Testifying to the "completeness" of her marriage, she moved the judge to question how it could be possible for a man who was married to such a woman to need the cold comfort of a prostitute. Before the trial Lord Archer submitted evidence to Conservative Central Office which claimed that during the vital 12 hours of the night of 8-9 September there were only 12 minutes which could not be accounted for. In addition to an engagement with 40 people, he said, he held a meeting with the Tory Chief Whip, John Wakeham. He then drove a colleague home from Central Office.

That, until last night, was the version on record. Now a friend, writer and TV producer, Ted Francis, has said that Lord Archer asked him to cover up for him and say they had been dining together at a restaurant. It is understood Lord Archer's companion was, in fact, Andrina Colquhoun, his personal asssistant.

Yesterday Lord Archer confirmed that he had asked Mr Francis to lie. At the time Lord Archer's party accepted his account and so, eventually, did the jury in his libel action. "I never doubted for a moment that I'd win," he said recently. " I knew I'd never met her and that a jury would soon work that out."

All that was behind him, he thought. But in a masterclass in the art of inviting nemesis, he said last year: "I don't regret the past at all. It's me sitting in this house with pounds 50m in the bank, not you." Today his Thameside penthouse and his Lowry, Monet and Warhol paintings may be secure. But his reinvented persona as the human face of Conservatism with a social conscience that, until yesterday gave him a decent shot at becoming London's mayor next May, has collapsed.