Forget WMD, let public services look after themselves - Jeffrey's back

By the end of 'Wind in the Willows', Mr Toad has acquired a contrite heart. But Toad is a more plausible character than Lord Archer
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The Independent Online

The excitement is mounting in the tabloid papers' newsrooms. Squads of reporters and cameramen have been instructed to be ready to drop all other assignments and concentrate on the big one. Who knows? In a few days, the Beckham family might be able to take a peaceful stroll, for - a week from now - Jeffrey Archer comes out of jail.

In the aftermath, the tabloids will be unbearable - and hypocritical. Paper A will secure an interview with Lord Archer; paper B, the underbidder, will promptly denounce its rival for giving newsprint room to this monstrous villain. In the popular press, August has always been known as the silly season, because nothing ever happens in that month, apart from the odd world war. This year, the season will come earlier and sillier.

On all known form, Lord Archer will rush to collaborate with the silliness, jumping into the ring to prance around at the tabloid circus masters' directions. They will treat him as wicked boys do when they catch a bullfrog; they will blow him up with a bicycle pump until he bursts.

This is a pity, for it will not only do him harm; it will obscure a small contribution which he could make to public life.

Jeffrey Archer has had an extraordinary career. Even he could not have made it up (although, in significant aspects, he did). No self-respecting publisher would have accepted Jeffrey's autobiography as a plot for a novel. In lack of verisimilitude, it would rival JK Rowling, but she is writing for children and has taken the precaution of equipping her characters with magic wands.

For many years, it seemed as if Jeffrey, too, had a magic wand. With one bound, he would escape from embarrassments which would have destroyed 10 normal mortals. But this was resilience, as well a brass neck. After his libel victory, I likened Jeffrey to a squash ball. You could stand a grand piano on him and he would still come back into shape.

Yet there are limits even to his powers of recovery. Judging by the rumours from his prison cell, he intends to resume his House of Lords life where he left off and to vindicate his innocence. This will not be possible.

The modern judiciary is neither naïve nor gullible. In the libel trial arising out of his dealings with a prostitute, it was Jeffrey's misfortune to find the one judge who was an exception. If any other man, not equipped with one of Ms Rowling's wizard's wands, had arranged for £2,000 to be conveyed to a tart, the world would have assumed that he had enjoyed value for money. He would not have been able to multiply his original stake 250-fold. If any other judge had presided over the case, he would have suggested to the jury that the plaintiff was the author of his own misfortunes. In the unlikely event of the jury finding that Jeffrey had been libelled, any other judge would have steered them towards derisory damages: say 1p.

The Archer family has been complaining about the conduct of Mr Justice Potts, the judge who sent Jeffrey to prison. Instead, they should be wishing that Porridge Potts had been the libel judge. Had he been, there would have been a different outcome and Jeffrey would neither have been sent to the House of Lords nor to prison.

Just because he is coming out of jail, however, Lord Archer would be unwise to assume that he could sweep straight back to the Lords as if nothing had happened. If he tried to, he would receive as rough treatment as he ever did in Belmarsh prison. Their Lordships' House is always said to have no rules, but it enforces them ruthlessly. If Jeffrey were to try to speak, there would be shouts of "No'' from all around the chamber. If he did manage to be called, he would immediately face a motion "that the Noble Lord be no longer heard'', which any peer can move at any time. It would be carried. Even for someone as thick-skinned as Jeffrey, that would be humiliating.

There might be an alternative. Though some peers will take the view that Lord Archer should never again show his face in the House, more merciful counsels could prevail, given time. If Jeffrey were to apply for leave of absence from the Lords at least until the expiry of the four-year term to which he was sentenced, he might then be in a better position, especially if he were to let it be known that any attendance fees would go to charity.

Caution would still be required. If he were to strut to his feet and inquire whether the Home Secretary was listening, he would instantly, resoundingly - and deservedly - be snubbed to silence. But if he made a short speech in a debate on penal policy, alluding to his personal knowledge and praising the work of the prison education service, he might receive a hearing. He could point out that there is a vast amount of illiteracy in our jails, to the extent that many prisoners are not even capable of reading his books. He could argue that money spent on teaching inmates to read and write would not just boost his royalties; it would help to equip ex-prisoners to find legitimate employment.

Lords' debates are often enriched by peers' own experiences, and Lord Archer could make a useful contribution. After all, prison is a country from whose bourne few articulate travellers return and the prison system is in a mess. Jeffrey could do something to help. And there is a further point: he may not have as much to add to political life as Bill Clinton does, but are his moral credentials necessarily inferior?

Jeffrey, alas, is unlikely to take the limited opportunities open to him, for this would require a measure of repentance on his part. By the end of The Wind in the Willows, Mr Toad has almost acquired a humble and a contrite heart, but Toad is a more flexible fictional character than Lord Archer, as well as a more plausible one. It is unlikely that penitence figures in Jeffrey's plans for the next episodes in his script.

This will give his foes their chance, and - himself apart - he has an enemy even more dangerous than the tabloids. Ten Downing Street cannot wait for Jeffrey's release. In its view, the press is obsessed by trivia, such as the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the hollowing out of the Government's plans for the public services and the end of the Prime Minister's reputation for integrity. How splendid it would be if the papers turned their attention to important matters, such as Jeffrey Archer's right to sit in the House of Lords.

The Government is already planning some dramatic legislation for the next parliamentary year. There are plans to stop judges wearing wigs and the Lord Chancellor wearing tights. If, in addition to all that constitutional valetry, there were also a bill to expel Jeffrey Archer from the Lords, how wonderfully it would enhance the British people's quality of life.

Mr Blair's Downing Street is still trading on gullibility and deceit. But as it has not yet met its Porridge Potts, there is a question that is worth asking, and pressing. Jeffrey Archer will not admit that he told lies. So what is the moral difference between him and Tony Blair?