'I'm not going to lay into Mary, it's just that she's a lady with problems'

Mary Archer may come to regret picking a fight with Baroness Nicholson.
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Indy Politics

Mary Archer broke her self-imposed vow of silence last week to pick a fight. Ignoring a vast array of targets – the criminal justice system, the media or the string of women her husband, Jeffrey, was unfaithful with – she threw her punches at a fellow formidable, 50-something, titled grande dame.

In her first interview since her husband was sent to jail, Lady Archer went live to the nation to reveal a terrible, tragic injustice. Belligerent and cantankerous – Lady Archer that is, John Humphrys was remarkably gentle by his standards – she appeared to be using the radio programme as a platform to deride her husband's fiercest critic. "I think she is misled and misleading," declared Lady Archer, in what was a flagrant, but hardly fragrant, attack.

The "she" in question was Baroness Nicholson, a society do-gooder, charity fundraiser and one-time colleague of Lord Archer's at Conservative Central Office. She famously defected to the Liberal Democrats and now sits in the House of Lords and as an MEP in Strasbourg.

The source of Lady Archer's ire was the criminal investigation into the novelist's dealings. The lies over his alibi for a libel trial are small-fry compared to what Baroness Nicholson wants answers to.

For a long time, the baroness, an expert on the Kurds, has harboured suspicions over Archer's fundraising claims, for which he was ennobled. But the peer's jailing prompted her to write to Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, to ask for an investigation into the whereabouts of £57m which Archer claimed to have raised with the British Red Cross for Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Lady Archer told Humphrys: "They're very serious allegations, they're entirely without foundation, they have resulted in real harm to Jeffrey Archer and now she seems to have smeared the Red Cross into the bargain."

While the police investigation goes on, Archer has been reclassified as a category C prisoner, preventing him being sent to an open prison. He resides in Wayland prison in Norfolk. It is in stark contrast to the elegant surroundings of the Reform Club in Pall Mall, in London's West End, where I met Baroness Nicholson late on Thursday night, hours after Lady Archer's attack on her. You can't help but think the choice of venue merely adds salt to the Archer wounds. And during an hour-long interview – and for another hour the next day at her London home – she keeps on pouring in the salt.

Emma Nicholson isn't backing down. She has with her a huge folder of material as part of her Archer file and she keeps adding to it information sent from around the country. Each time she receives something pertinent, she sends it to the fraud squad at Scotland Yard, which is investigating Archer's Simple Truth appeal, the appeal that he claimed – even once in his entry in Who's Who – raised £57m.

"It [her criticism] is of no concern to me at all," says Baroness Nicholson. "She is a woman whose husband is in jail. Who am I to criticise her for that? She has got trouble with her son as well. She is a lady with problems and if it makes her feel better to attack me then that's fine. My work is serious. To me, the Kurds are the victims of the Archers."

Almost four weeks on the truth remains murky. Sir Nicholas Young, the British Red Cross's chief executive, attempted to back Lady Archer's account of the funds on the same Today programme. Sir Nicholas may be convinced no money has gone astray but on Friday he called in a firm of accountants to undertake an independent investigation into the campaign. "I am absolutely determined that we get to the bottom of all the financial issues that have been quite properly raised in the public domain," he said.

But Patrick Healy, the head of the international aid section at the time, said the Red Cross raised no more than £9m. "There was no increased funding that could be attributed to Simple Truth," he said. The inflated figures merely served to enhance, or at least maintain, Archer's and the charity's reputation.

Archer, goes one argument, could not have embezzled funds because there weren't any. "It doesn't seem as if there was much or any money in the first place," says Baroness Nicholson. "The investigation belongs to the police – not to me.

"But I commend the British public for supporting my search for the real truth which is clearly not simple. Nothing to do with Jeffrey Archer is ever simple. He is the original bad penny. Seldom has there been a greater misnomer than the Simple Truth appeal."

Baroness Nicholson is furious with the Red Cross for standing by Archer. She suspects he only showed interest in the plight of the Kurds to secure exclusive rights to oil reserves in northern Iraq. He is accused of setting up a Panama-based company to exploit the oil and gas fields in Kurdistan when he became involved with the campaign. Baroness Nicholson has passed on details to the police, including a statement from Sardar Pishdare. Mr Pishdare, a Kurd leader and businessman, says he tried to set up a venture with Archer that would have made the Kurds self-sufficient in oil and gas and would have earned millions in export revenue. Archer, he claims, "had stolen my ideas and ... gone behind my back. Now he has been exposed as a criminal".

"This," asserts Baroness Nicholson, "is a classic Jeffrey Archer technique. He did it with the Simple Truth appeal concert. The idea came from somebody else who had already done some work on it."

That is what Lorraine Goodrich alleges happened to her British Aid for the Kurds Appeal. She was sending aid to northern Iraq in 1991 and had begun to sign up pop stars for a concert when she discovered Archer had hijacked it and rebranded it the Simple Truth concert. "We can prove it is our millions he is claiming [to have raised]," said Ms Goodrich.

Baroness Nicholson says: "Jeffrey Archer restored his tattered credibility sufficiently to gain a peerage on the basis of the Simple Truth appeal. It is hard to see how he could have been taken up as the candidate for London's mayor without the Simple Truth appeal."

And it was his entry into the mayoral race that led Ted Francis to go to the News of the World. This led to a police investigation into the Monica Coghlan libel trial, which in turn led to Archer's conviction for perjury. Which is, of course, the final irony in the 10-year saga of Jeffrey Archer and the £57m Simple Truth appeal.