Jeffrey Archer's career has consisted largely of getting into "scrapes", as Margaret Thatcher indulgently called them, and getting out of them again; but he is surely too discredited, and too old, ever to get fully clear of this one. Perhaps he will write a book, play and film based – loosely, in order to avoid the seizure of profits from his crime – on his experience of prison. But it is to be hoped that he will go to his dotage a discredited man.
Yesterday's sentence may seem to have been excessive. Jonathan Aitken got 18 months for an arguably more odious perjury. The suspicion must persist that Archer is now suffering from Mr Justice Potts's anger that the law seemed to have been turned into an ass in the original case. But that Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare was guilty no one can doubt. He should have been found out by the courts and the political system years ago.
The one saving grace of his astonishingly resilient career – although it was as a result of his own character defects as much as the law – was that he was never able to survive in politics. He was forced, as a bankrupt, to resign as MP for Louth in 1974. He came back as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985, but only lasted a year before he had to resign to fight the libel action over his entanglement with Monica Coghlan.
Archer won the case and was honoured with a life peerage by John Major, who was grateful for the use of Archer's chauffeur during the 1990 Tory leadership contest and for Archer's energetic fundraising for the party. He did not make it back to what Michael Portillo calls "front-line" politics until he was selected as Tory candidate for the London mayoral race, but the dishonesty by which he secured a favourable verdict in the 1987 court case returned to bring about the end of his mayoral campaign, his expulsion from the Conservative Party and now, finally, his jailing.
There remains one glaring anomaly in his punishment, and that is his continued membership of the House of Lords. Public opinion was rightly shocked when, in 1982, Lord Kagan, Harold Wilson's disgraced crony, resumed his seat on the red benches after serving a prison sentence, and people were baffled by legal explanations of why it was not possible to strip him of his peerage without a special Act of Parliament. Unlike the House of Commons, which excludes convicted criminals from membership, the only thing that gets you thrown out of the Lords is treason. The Government has an opportunity to put this right in its promised Bill to eject the remaining hereditary peers from the Upper House; it should bring its membership conditions into line with those of the Commons as part of a more thoroughgoing modernisation.
That is a detail, however. What matters to the public is how far Archer's career has indicated a fundamental weakness in political life or how much he was a one-off, a man who thrived by his charm, his energy and his cheekiness. A bit of both must be the answer.
In his heyday, Jeffrey Archer represented some of the elements that are good in our national character – an affection for the outsider who can bounce back from defeat, a sneaking admiration for someone who can get away it. But his has also been a life forged in duplicity and overriding ambition. At bottom, he has been prepared to lie and to get others to lie for him if it suited his purposes. For that he has been found guilty – and justly so.Reuse content