Archer quits in disgrace

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Lord Archer faces the possibility of criminal charges after he sensationally quit the race to be London mayor last night amid revelations that he asked a friend to lie for him in court.

Lord Archer faces the possibility of criminal charges after he sensationally quit the race to be London mayor last night amid revelations that he asked a friend to lie for him in court.

The millionaire novelist insisted the "untruth" had no bearing on his successful libel action against the Daily Star after it alleged that he had slept with Monica Coghlan, a prostitute.

The would-be mayor was forced to admit that he had asked a friend, Ted Francis, to "cover" for him by saying they had dined together at Caprice, an exclusive Chelsea restaurant, on 9 September, 1987, the day before he was alleged to have slept with Ms Coghlan.

Lord Archer now claims he was actually having dinner at the restaurant with a "close female friend" whose identity he wanted to protect.

Anthony Scrivener, one of Britain's leading QCs, said: "If Archer's friend gave false evidence then he would be guilty of perjury or possibly conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

"Archer could be charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice if he knew his friend was lying in his evidence to protect him, which obviously he must have done.

"If Archer himself gave evidence that he was with this friend having dinner when he wasn't he would be guilty of perjury. The penalty for this is 18 months to four years.

"Anything to do with perjury in court is treated very seriously by the police because the very edifice of justice depends on people telling the truth."

In a statement, Lord Archer admitted: "Of course I should not have asked Ted to cover for me, even though it was beyond question that I was in the restaurant that night; I was simply trying to protect the person I was with."

The embarrassing disclosures were unearthed by the News of the World, which is thought to have paid Mr Francis an estimated £15,000 for tapes of incriminating telephone conversations he had with Lord Archer.

Tory leader William Hague, who learned of the crisis on Friday night, told Lord Archer his position was untenable. "Conservatives must set the highest standards of integrity in public life. Jeffrey Archer has let the party down and there could be no question of him continuing as our candidate," he said.

After a week in which the chaos surrounding Labour's selection of a candidate for London mayor has dominated the news, it is now the Tories' turn to be in turmoil. Lord Archer's decision to resign - made 11 hours after he learned his secret was out - has sent the party scurrying to find a replacement.

An emergency meeting of the party's special mayoral selection panel will be held at Conservative central office in London later today. It will decide whether the party has to re-open nominations to select a candidate for mayor or automatically hand the nomination to former transport minister Steven Norris, who was heavily defeated by Lord Archer when the question was put to London Conservatives earlier in the year. Mr Hague is said to have "not yet come to a view" on the matter.

Lord Archer's resignation was the nightmare scenario that the Tories were desperate to avoid. Before Mr Francis sold his story, Lord Archer had already come under attack for his share dealing in Anglia TV in 1994.

But on 11am on Friday, News of the World editor Phil Hall and a colleague visited the Tory peer at his penthouse suite on Albert Embankment, London for a 20-minute meeting, described by Nadhim Zahawi, director of Lord Archer's field campaign, as "quite civil".

Lord Archer said last night he was pulling out of the mayoral contest to spare his family and the Tory party "six months of sustained attack". His wife, Lady Archer, is said to "support" his decision.

As Lord Archer quit, Labour seized the opportunity to further deflect attention away from their internal problems, saying "sleaze" had come back to haunt the Tories.

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