Archer testimony 'would distract from evidence'

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This was meant to be the main event. Jeffrey Archer standing in the witness box giving evidence again, 13 years 11 months and three weeks after the bravura performance that helped him win £500,000 in his 1987 libel trial.

Since then the millionaire writer has given another performance from a witness box – a theatrical one this time – making his professional acting debut in his own play, The Accused, last year. Yesterday, however, there was no reprise of the High Court of 1987, or the stage. At the start of the defence case, Nicholas Purnell, the Tory peer's QC, told Mr Justice Potts that he did not intend to call his client as a witness.

One could almost hear the groan, in unison, from the packed public gallery and the press benches – the disappointment of those who had been told a star performer has pulled out without warning.

Every pair of eyes in Court 8 appeared to turn to the man in the dock. Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, however, sat motionless, his head resting on his right shoulder in a curiously bird like repose.

The former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party arrived at the Old Bailey not in his racing green BMW, as he had done on every day so far, but in a taxi, accompanied by his son James. The photographers almost missed them, distracted by a road accident victim sitting in the road. Lord Archer waited obligingly for them to get back to their positions for the shots.

The morning was soporific. Mark Ellison, the junior prosecution counsel, plodded on. "Can members of the jury change 33A to 63A and 33B to 63B in bundle two ..." But people were prepared to wait in expectation of what was supposed to come.

At 2.42pm, after another stoppage for legal argument, something which has characterised the case, Mr Purnell at last opened the defence.

As journalists sat with pens poised, ready for Lord Archer, Mr Justice Potts asked: "Have you advised your client that the stage has now been reached at which he may give evidence and if he chooses not to do so, or having been sworn without good cause, refuses to answer any question, the jury may draw such influences as appear proper from his failure to do so?" Mr Purnell replied that he did not intend to call Lord Archer.

Ted Francis, a fellow defendant in the case, turned to look at Lord Archer, sitting eight feet away in the dock. Lord Archer continued to stare straight ahead, fiddling with his heavy gold cufflinks.

Lord Archer's performance, or the lack of it, seemed to weigh heavily on Mr Purnell's mind as he turned to the jury. One of the main reasons the peer was not being called, he explained, was because his "performance in the witness box" could form a distraction from the evidence and could lead to comparison "with his performance" in the 1987 trial.

He mentioned the media's saturation coverage of the case,dominating the headlines even during the election campaign. "Even as I speak there are sub-editors up and down the country writing the headline 'Archer remains silent'," Mr Purnell said with a flourish.

But Mr Purnell reassured the jury that he will be calling witnesses to talk about his client. " You have heard a great deal about Lord Archer from critics of Lord Archer," he said.

There followed a quick-fire defence. Four witnesses came and went in the space of 47 minutes. They all said what a decent, trustworthy chap the peer was. Among the character witnesses was the barrister Gilbert Gray QC, who became a friend of Lord Archer after the libel trial. "He readily trusts pretty well everyone he encounters, boomed Mr Gray in his best advocate's voice, looking towards the dock. "He is open about it and because of that he is very vulnerable."

Another witness, the American film producer Frank Marshall, told the jury the peer was "kind, generous and sincere and honest ... he wears his heart rather on his sleeve, I think".

On the judge's direction, the jury cleared Lord Archer of one of the charges of perverting the course of justice. Some in the public gallery thought it was all over. But the real ending to this riveting drama is due next week.

The case continues.