Archer's fall: A very English drama of sex, class and politics

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The Independent Online

How fitting that the trial of Jeffrey Archer should be full of drama. There was seldom a dull day at Court 8 of the Old Bailey, and no shortage of spectators willing to queue patiently for a chance to glimpse the theatrics.

What was on offer was not a Greek tragedy. That requires the hero to be brought down by his own hubris. Archer had the hubris, but no other discernible heroic traits. It was not a bawdy comic romp, the ending was too brutal for that. Nor was it a thriller. We knew all along it was the Tory vice-chairman in Shepherd Market, with the false alibi. What we had, instead, was a superior soap, a very English tale of sex and hypocrisy, class and politics.

The shadow of the 1987 libel action, Archer's famous victory that sowed the seeds of his eventual downfall, hung over the proceedings.

There were the obvious comparisons. Mary Archer's performance in the witness box then and now, the summings up of Mr Justice Caulfield at the High Court and Mr Justice Potts at the Bailey, the reactions of the two sets of jurors to the evidence being laid before them.

There were also the tantalising sub-plots that developed without the jury being present and were thus not reportable. The juicy director's cuts for journalists, which could be revealed later.

One morning, with urgent whispers among lawyers, came reports that Ted Francis's defence papers had been stolen and somehow turned up at the offices of Archer's solicitors. The notes were delivered to the offices of Mishcon de Reya in a brown envelope. They returned the papers unread to Mr Francis's solicitors, Henri Brandman. Scotland Yard officers, already in court, were informed, and an investigation will start now that the trial is over.

There was the lingering spat between Mr Justice Potts and Archer's counsel, Nicholas Purnell QC, over some alleged legal trickery by the latter. In his closing speech, Mr Purnell, as well he might, bemoaned the fact that Mr Justice Caulfield was dead and could not be called as a witness. The influence of Caulfield in the first trial cannot be underestimated. From the moment the judge interrupted a barrister who had asked Mary Archer how old she was with, "You should say, 'How young are you"' to the now legendary "Is she not fragrant?", he had been an overwhelming and prejudiced presence at that trial.

Lady Archer's evidence was pivotal in the High Court trial, in effect winning the case for her husband. Thirteen years and eleven months later things were very different. There was no sign of infatuation from Mr Justice Potts. He broke into one of Lady Archer's soliloquies in answer to a question with: "If you listen to the question, then answer, it will be a lot better. That's the way we do it here."

There were other differences from the bravura performance of the past and part of it, at least, was historic. Back then Mary Archer had been the wife of someone in the highest reaches of the ruling party. Things have changed, the years of Tory rule ended, of course, wallowing in sleaze; Archer himself is a discredited character and this reflected on her. Mary's well-rehearsed sound-bites, meant to be amusing, fell like stones, her hectoring tone, a mellower version of Thatcher, simply jarred.

The barristers who, with the judge, were the main players in this cast, each took on a distinct persona. Mr Purnell was the most voluble, jumping up and down at real and imaginary transgressions in the coverage of the trial by newspapers.

Roy Amlot, QC for Ted Francis, was a bit of a street-fighter, saying less than the others, but almost everything to deadly effect. He became a second prosecutor of Archer in this case.

Mr Purnell's trouble with Mr Justice Potts began when he was questioning Angela Peppiatt and suddenly produced her credit card records. She looked astonished and so did the judge. Archer's legal team, it appeared, had gone behind his back to the Recorder of London, Sir Michael Hyam, to get authorisation to delve into Ms Peppiatt's financial records. Mr Justice Potts was outraged and he said he would be investigating whether Mr Purnell had acted improperly.

There was also elements of pathos. Archer turned greyer and increasingly haunted in six weeks, as he saw his case collapse around him. Then came the news that his mother, Lola, a huge influence in his life, had died from a stroke.

Yesterday, Archer, wearing the same grey suit, blue shirt and the black tie he has worn since his mother's death, clasped his hands behind his back throughout the judge's lengthy sentencing.

The weight of evidence against him was such that Archer could not realistically expect to escape this time.