Conrad's last stand: Lord Black returns to London social scene

These are testing times for London society: the disgraced magnate Lord Black is back in town. Sholto Byrnes on a mixed reception
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Perhaps this is why the former owner of The Daily Telegraph has swallowed his pride and returned to Britain for a most unlikely charm offensive. Only a year ago he promised "never to set foot in England again". Yet now, holed up at the £500-a-night Berkeley Hotel, the disgraced peer seems to be attempting a comeback, one that could rescue his social standing if nothing else.

It could be that he will soon need all the friends he can get. If things look bad now for Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, they could soon get a whole lot worse. A team of US lawyers, led by Patrick Fitzgerald, the ambitious US attorney for the Northern Dis- trict of Illinois, is preparing a criminal case against Black which lays allegations so serious that, if proven, he could spend the next 20 years in jail.

He is scarcely acting the part of a doomed man. On Tuesday night he was spotted in Harry's Bar in Mayfair, chatting to Sir Rocco Forte. In the past few weeks he and Amiel have been returning to the select haunts frequented by the moneyed and titled with which they were once so familiar.

They were at the annual summer party thrown by Drew Heinz, the food magnate's widow. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent had drinks with them at Annabel's, the nightclub named after Lady Annabel Goldsmith, who has also entertained them at her house in Richmond. Maurice Saatchi has had them to lunch at his Sussex residence. The publishing grandee Lord Weidenfeld has promised to hold a party for them.

The Blacks' palatial home in Kensington has gone, sold for £13m to a former Mexican beauty queen, as have the private jets and his place on the board of Hollinger, the company he is accused of treating like a private fiefdom. Even the house in Florida is on the market. In the meantime the couple are making do with the Knightsbridge hotel suite, but they are said to be looking for an apartment to rent.

It seems that Lord Black of Crossharbour is happy to spend more time again in the country that raised him to ermine and where he once had the ear of prime ministers and captains of industry.

If there is surprise at his re-emergence in London, it is not only because of the pending criminal charges. It is also because Black's downfall was not greeted with the dismay he expected in his adopted home. Amiel was sacked as a columnist at The Daily Telegraph, and Black is thought to have regarded that newspaper's reporting of his difficulties as a betrayal. The Spectator, which he also owned, and which is edited by Boris Johnson - a journalist to whom the Blacks showed special favour, even throwing a party in his honour - printed disobliging stories about the former proprietor. The verdict on Black was typified by the remarks of the Times executive Mary Ann Sieghart, who wrote in her column that she found him "insufferably arrogant and pompous each time I met him".

Reports have suggested that the Blacks' reappearance has led to "raised eyebrows" and "utter horror" among the London social scene. But those who have remained constant in the Blacks' adversity say otherwise. "I don't think anyone has raised their eyebrows except in the imagination of newspaper feature writers," says the biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore. "They are old friends, and it's only right that friends should support each other." Adds his wife and fellow author Santa Montefiore: "They've always been extremely kind to us. We're loyal friends, and recent events won't change that."

It was at the launch party for Santa Montefiore's latest novel in May that Amiel was seen dipping her toes back into the party circuit. She sought out friends such as Miriam Gross, the former literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph. "All of the friends they had before are still friends," says Gross, who has seen the couple recently. "They were in good spirits," she says.

Gross warns that intimates of the Blacks are protective of the couple and would rather not talk about them, and so it proves. Speaking on behalf of her husband, Lord Carrington, who was made a director of the Telegraph by Black, Lady Carrington says: "He feels that Conrad Black is here privately and he wouldn't want to contribute to any discussion about him." Another old friend, the historian Andrew Roberts, says: "I really don't like talking about Conrad and Barbara."

This is understandable, given the readiness of those unsympathetic to Black to rejoice with every rebuff he receives. But such incidents can be misinterpreted. Last week it was reported that an unpleasant exchange had taken place at Annabel's between Black and Andrew Neil. Not so, according to Neil. "It implied that we almost came to blows, which is complete drivel," he says. "It was a bit of friendly banter. He sat down at a table with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. I waved, he growled that I should be ashamed of myself. I said, 'It's you who should be ashamed'. We both had a big chuckle and we're having lunch later this week."

But however hostile some may be towards the Blacks in Britain - one Telegraph executive comments that their return to London "makes you want to vomit" - it is nothing compared to the humiliation they have endured in North America. Associates there say the couple have been shunned in Canada, where they have a mansion in the Bridle Path area of Toronto. "People they might have thought of as friends have turned away," says one. "It's been very painful for them." Although legal action is ongoing, public opinion in the US has already decided against them. "Because there is a culture of investing among a much wider section of the population, the perception is that people who steal money from companies are evil," says an old friend of the Blacks.

Edward Greenspan, Conrad Black's attorney, says that his client has been "vilified". "It's pretty extraordinary - merciless," he says. Toronto Life magazine had to apologise after printing an article that said Black was "so irredeemably evil he should be consigned to hell".

So far London is proving to be a more congenial place for the Blacks to step out in public. Boris Johnson has indicated that the couple would be welcome at the Spectator summer party, which is being held this week. That, however, might prove an outing too far even for a man of Black's tremendous self-confidence.