Alan Watkins: A charming fraud. Without the charm

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The Independent Online

It was in the late 1960s that Humphry Berkeley asked me whether I had ever heard of Jeffrey Archer. Berkeley, then still a Conservative, just about, had lost his Lancaster seat in 1966. In the seven years in which he had sat in the House, he had done great things. He had played a leading part in reforming the law on homosexuality. He had even reformed the Tory party. He had persuaded Lord Home to adopt that system of electing the leader which, with variations, lasted till Mr William Hague brought in the party members. Though he was to die a somewhat sad, disappointed and footloose figure, he remains one of the outstanding backbenchers of the second half of the last century.

When he asked me about Archer, Berkeley was chairman of the United Nations Association, Archer his assistant. I said I had indeed heard of him. He was most famous for being the fund-raiser who had organised the Beatles' visit to Oxford. For some reason I also had at the back of my mind the story that there was something fishy about his place in the Oxford University athletics team. It turned out that, even though he had been merely attached to Brasenose College rather than a full member of the university – the source of the original suspicion – the athletics club had been fully entitled to accept him. The real question, which was not to emerge clearly until later, with Mr Michael Crick's masterly biography, was about how he had managed to insinuate himself into the university's department of education at all.

But, I said to Berkeley, I had never had the pleasure of meeting him. That was odd, Berkeley replied. In his expenses form Archer claimed to have bought me lunch only a few weeks before. I was puzzled and slightly perturbed, for it is not pleasant to figure in the expenses claim of someone you have never set eyes on in your life.

A few weeks later Berkeley produced for my inspection an incriminating dossier of Archer's delinquencies. The curious thing was the smallness of the sums involved, hardly worth a false claim. In those days, I should explain, it was possible to entertain someone to lunch in Soho or the West End for £10 or so. Indeed, in 1960 it was possible to have the set lunch in the Caprice, a restaurant to figure largely in Lord Archer's later adventures, for 7s.6d. or 37.5p in today's money. But even allowing for the great inflation, Archer's frauds were tiny.

Still, Berkeley decided he was unfit to become a Tory MP, the career Archer was then pursuing. Berkeley was a determined and could be a vindictive enemy. He wrote, I think, to Edward Heath, the party leader. He certainly wrote to Anthony Barber, the party chairman. It was to no avail. In 1969, following a by-election, Archer entered the House as member for Louth.

In the 1970s and early 1980s I observed his vicissitudes from afar. I did not believe his account of the events surrounding his libel case in 1987. I was surprised that his formidable legal team, including Robert (now Lord) Alexander QC, did not believe it likewise. We all know that lawyers have to do their best for their clients, though this goes only so far as not putting forward evidence they know to be untrue. Incidentally, the Mr Justice Caulfield who found Lady Archer so fragrant was the same judge who, quite rightly, had driven a coach-and-horses through the Official Secrets Acts 16 years previously and virtually instructed the jury to acquit Mr Jonathan Aitken and others in the Biafra case.

Later on, an invitation arrived to lunch at Alembic House, in a dismal area on the south side of the Thames, not far from the offices of The Observer, where I then worked. I hesitated but accepted, reasoning that I might meet some interesting people there. This, after all, was how most of his other guests reasoned. His abode was not a penthouse but simply a flat on the top floor. We drank white wine with our food. Lord Hanson was there, looking like a kite that was about to take off. I talked mainly to Imran Khan, who, however, proved less entertaining as a conversationalist than he had been as a cricketer. Though temperate, he managed to get through a couple of glasses of wine.

My next visit to Alembic House was on my own initiative. It was in 1991. Margaret Thatcher had fallen in November 1990. I was writing a book about this episode. Archer had prospered under her in the 1980s. He was to flourish even more extravagantly under her successor, John Major, in the 1990s. At the beginning of the week following the first ballot, which Mrs Thatcher had failed to win by four votes, Archer visited Mr Major at his Huntingdon home at the latter's invitation. Mr Major was recovering from his tooth operation and wanted company. When Mrs Thatcher was still thinking of standing in the second ballot (as she did not), it was Archer who dispatched his chauffeur Bob to Huntingdon to secure Mr Major's as it turned out unwanted signature. It is still not wholly clear what part Archer played in urging Mr Major to contest the leadership with Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd.

With the lady gone, Archer assumed the social duties previously performed at the party conference by Lord McAlpine. These consisted in running a late-night champagne buffet in a suite at the headquarters hotel. The guests were party bigwigs and leading journalists. Archer did not prove such a popular host as McAlpine. Indeed, a rival salon was set up under the auspices of Lord Hesketh.

Contrary to the reports that have appeared over the last couple of days, Archer was not relaxed enough to be a good host. I once invited my friend Paul Routledge to accompany me to one of these do's. Archer spotted him and asked him to leave because he was not an editor, a columnist or a political editor but, at that stage of his career, a political reporter merely. I am happy to say Mr Routledge stood his ground. I never attended another Archer party.

The last time I met him was at a party not his own to celebrate the publication of Lord Lamont's memoirs. Far from laying on the charm (a quality in which in any case I had never felt him over-endowed), he told me sternly that I was carrying far too much weight. Clearly, his mother had never instructed him that it was rude to make personal remarks; or, if she had, he had decided to ignore her advice. He would, he added, help me to lose the superfluous stones. But if I accepted his offer, I should have to do exactly as he said. Doing what Jeffrey Archer said, in however worthy a cause, did not seem to me the ideal way to spend the autumn of my days. As any good journalist would have done, I made my excuses and left.