Push for early Archer report

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE, President of the Board of Trade, is expected to order an early statement about the Government inquiry into Lord Archer and others over alleged insider share-dealing.

As Mr Heseltine's Department of Trade and Industry defended its controversial decision to name Lord Archer in its comment on the affair, there was growing pressure to make public its findings, this week if possible. The inquiry began in February and the report is near completion.

The DTI inspectors are believed to be looking into the purchase of 30,000 shares just before a takeover bid for Anglia TV. A profit of pounds 54,000 could have been made and the DTI says that three people, one of them Lord Archer, are being investigated. Lord Archer denies that he bought any shares. Mary Archer, his wife, is a non-executive director of Anglia.

Labour's trade and industry spokesman, Robin Cook, said yesterday it was 'very important that the inspectors are allowed to get on with their job and that there should be no delay introduced for any political consideration'.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme he added: 'I take no view on whether Lord Archer should be named. That is a matter over which the Conservatives can squabble amongst themselves.'

John Butterfill, Tory MP for Bournemouth West and a member of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, defended the department's decision to depart from normal practice in naming Lord Archer. He said they were 'in a position that they were damned if they denied it and damned if they didn't'.

A millionaire novelist rarely far from controversy, Lord Archer's role in the Conservative Party has been built on two foundations: his enormous popularity with the party faithful and his closeness to senior party figures, including John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

He is a prolific constituency visitor and morale-raiser, a guaranteed fixture in any election campaign, and the constituency party chairmen's choice for the top job at Central Office. At public meetings, he is a bigger draw than any member of the Cabinet except, perhaps, Michael Heseltine.

Cabinet ministers will soon attend an Archer garden party at his home in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire. At Christmas he entertains the great and good of the party in his London penthouse apartment, and at Conservative Party conferences the Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet drink Krug champagne at his expense.

His relationships with Mr Major and Lady Thatcher are more difficult to gauge. Lady Thatcher considered him 'one of us' and still appears at his parties. Yet her autobiography refers to him only once.

When Lady Thatcher left office, Lord Archer managed to stay on terms with her while becoming a member of the Major fan club.

To the Prime Minister, Lord Archer is an old friend and a cheerful face amid the gloom of the last 18 months. Lord Archer in turn basks in the reflected glory of regular breakfasts, dinners and chats with Mr Major.

Whether or not Lord Archer's much-proclaimed respect for the Prime Minister is reciprocated was about to be tested in the reshuffle. Many of Mr Major's colleagues worried, like Lady Thatcher, about Lord Archer's judgement and suitability for high office.

One minister said in admiration: 'His life is much better than his books. I think, in a government not overflowing with personalities, he is a good, newsy person to have.'

But another Tory recalled asking a minister what he would do if he was promoted to the Cabinet with Lord Archer as his deputy: 'He replied, 'I wouldn't do it'. '

There is more than a suspicion that an Archer row, so close to the reshuffle, gets Mr Major conveniently off a hook.

Despite greater consistency in his broadcasting performances, the Tory party at Westminster had not been completely convinced. As one fan put it: 'He has unbelievable energy, unbounded enthusiasm and is a great advert for entrepreneurship. He is also a larger-than- life character with a great theatrical performance - when he makes a speech you sit in awe.

'But there remains a feeling that he is a bit of a maverick. That's why, when it comes to the party chairmanship, MPs are less enthusiastic about his prospects than constituency chairmen.'

Inside Story, page 15