Magazine article The Spectator

I Blame the Establishment

Magazine article The Spectator

I Blame the Establishment

Article excerpt

A FEW weeks ago I unearthed, in BBC archives, film of a 1960s Oxford v. Cambridge annual athletics match. On the jerky monochrome images from 1964, wearing vest number 3 in the 100 yards, was J.H. Archer of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Jeffrey Archer's trouble, athletic colleagues recall, was his unfortunate habit of jumping the gun. The film shows how it happened once, and the four runners had to return to their starting blocks. Then he somehow managed to jump the gun again. Officially the rule was two false starts and you were out, but for some reason the authorities smiled upon young Jeffrey and gave him another chance. `If he's not out, it's by kind permission of the starter,' noted one of the McWhirter twins. Yet far from holding back on his next attempt, Archer did it a third time. Surely now he must be disqualified? But no, the race was finally run and Archer performed brilliantly. Against all predictions he came second, just behind his friend Adrian Metcalf, one of the best runners in the world. Oxford had won an unexpected extra two points, but the real issue, the BBC team agreed, was why Archer had been allowed to run. The parallels are too close to ignore. Archer's lifelong grievance is that he's always been the victim of a snobbish British establishment. It's an odd complaint from someone who sent a son to Eton, fought tenaciously to get into the Lords and likes to employ aristocrats on his office staff. The real trouble with Jeffrey is not that the establishment persecute him, but that they tolerate him too much.

Jeffrey has been indulged all his life, in fact, from a doting mother who regularly mentioned his exploits in her newspaper column, to his wife Mary, who should have put her foot down years ago. At Dover College, where he taught PE, his old headmaster failed to check whether Archer really did have the American degree he claimed, while his principal at Brasenose College, Sir Noel Hall - `the only principal I ever had' - brushed aside questions as to whether Archer was really entitled to stay at Oxford for a full three years. And just as the White City starter showed surprising leniency with Archer's impatience to get going, so too did Central Office grandees when he became a by-election candidate in 1969 and Humphrey Berkeley warned them about discrepancies in Archer's expenses for the United Nations Association.

Tory colleagues have been the biggest indulgers of all. Many of them will consume his famous shepherd's pie and sup the Archer Krug at his thrice-yearly bashes - in July, at the Tory conference and at Christmas - but then hypocritically mutter about what a dreadful man he is. Archer made something of a sport of getting every Cabinet member to his soirees, though the one who always seemed to refuse was Michael Heseltine, who makes no secret of his contempt.

Remarkably, Archer achieved the rare feat of genuine friendships with Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Though neither premier seriously considered him for ministerial office, they were cajoled into doling out lesser prizes: a deputy chairmanship and eventually the peerage. Archer always exaggerated how close he was, of course, but nonetheless enjoyed better access to Downing Street than most Cabinet members.

Where most politicians would have been ruined by any one of Archer's gaffes or misjudgments, Jeffrey, like the Oxford sprinter, was always allowed one more chance. And journalists, too, have been a touch too soft. Archer is brilliant at cultivating Fleet Street editors and political staff, who also flock to lap up his hospitality, and have even been known to join the Archers on holiday. …

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