Mixed fortunes of a patriotic survivor: Lord Archer's switchback career has been driven by political ambition. Now he faces another setback

AS A TALE of bad luck mixed with good, of disappointments with compensations, of sense of duty with sheer cheek and nerve, the Jeffrey Archer story must border on the unique.

Some would insist that Lord Archer's best luck of all is the reputed pounds 25m fortune garnered from eight best-selling novels since 1975.

The opening line of his latest, and third, short-story collection, Twelve Red Herrings, goes: 'It's hard to know exactly where to begin. But first, let me explain why I'm in jail.' The story, it should be emphasised, concerns a fictitious murder trial.

The prodigious fiction writing began as a means to an end, however, and has never displaced a deep love of politics and seemingly unquenchable political ambition.

There was the serious bad luck of losing his pounds 270,000 investment in a Canadian company, Aquablast Incorporated, victim of a Mafia-inspired share swindle.

This led to the first Archer bounce-back as he set about his reconstruction by fictionalising the experience in Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Arguably, however, the worse luck was the decision that the episode dictated the resignation of his parliamentary seat of Louth, Lincolnshire, acquired at the record early age of 29 with the ambition of becoming prime minister.

From that setback he never quite recovered - he was not to re-enter Parliament. However, as the books amassed the fortune and the Archer home amassed the Picasso and the Pissarro paintings, he turned to voluntary work for the party with a matchless zeal that eventually produced the prize of the deputy chairmanship of the Tory party in 1985.

But almost as soon as Margaret Thatcher had rewarded him, his political life crashed around his ears when the News of the World revealed the following year that he had paid pounds 2,000 to a prostitute.

Again he bounced back, in 1988 when he won a then record pounds 500,000 damages, assisted by his 'fragrant' wife Mary, in a libel action against the Daily Star. By then, however, he had felt compelled to relinquish the deputy chairmanship.

Often described as 'chalk and cheese', he and Mary, an academic and a public figure with commercial and Lloyd's connections, have been married for 28 years. They have two grown-up sons.

In the summer of 1991 there was further mixed publicity over the total sum claimed to have been raised by his Simple Truth campaign for the Kurdish people. He expressed 'great hurt' that he had been so misunderstood.

The compelling story-teller is no stranger to economy with the truth on occasion. He was content to let it be inferred, for instance, that he attended Wellington College, Berkshire, rather than the lesser Wellington School, Somerset.

Such observations leave him outwardly unfazed. A patriot and traditionalist, he takes pride in the unestablishment side of his personality. Among his disappointments must rank the fact that, despite their close friendship, Baroness Thatcher appeared to entertain lingering doubts, denying him both advancement in the party and a peerage.

It is a measure of the energy, ebullience, single-mindedness, charm even, of Lord Archer that he managed to be confidant to two, very different, prime ministers.

His friend John Major was to partly let him down, too. The coveted peerage was eventually delivered, but Mr Major failed to supply the 'proper job' that Lord Archer wanted to go with it.

His enthusiasm and commitment to working for the Conservative cause remained undented, as testified by countless fund-raising drives, local association after- dinner speeches, rousing party conference contributions and flesh-pressing appearances on by-election trails. 'Let me tell you,' delivered in booming tones, is one of his stock expressions.

The party almost shamelessly exploited the appeal of a man constantly recognised and praised whenever he hit the streets. Party managers knew the British public's admiration of a man who had hauled himself up from near-bankruptcy to multi- millionaire could never be over-estimated.

It was increasingly felt that he had earned another reward. He made little effort to conceal his desire to be party chairman and was the popular choice among the Tory grass-roots to take over from Sir Norman Fowler. Others mooted him as a possible minister for sport in the Department of National Heritage.

In fact, the party chairmanship was never a realistic prospect at this stage in a parliament, when a Cabinet heavyweight is normally called for, while the Department of Trade and Industry inquiry hanging over him precluded any appointment.

Whether he will bounce back from this setback is a story yet to be told.

(Photograph omitted)

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