Those Suits

Paul Foot

  • Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction by Michael Crick
    Hamish Hamilton, 456 pp, £17.50, May 1995, ISBN 0 241 13360 2

Reviewing this book gives me a chance to indulge in my most bitterly regretted journalistic failure. In the autumn of 1987, shortly after the famous libel action in which Jeffrey Archer successfully sued the Daily Star for suggesting he’d had sex with a prostitute, a curious document arrived at my office at the Daily Mirror, where I wrote a weekly investigative column. The document was a copy of a pro forma shoplifter’s report from the Robert Simpson Company Ltd, which owns a department store in Toronto. The report was timed at 10.40 a.m. on 18 November 1975, and was in the form of a voluntary statement, as follows: ‘I Jeffrey Howard Archer do state that I took merchandise to the value of $540, the property of the Robert Simpson Company Ltd, on November 18 1975 without paying for same and without permission.’

The details of the aforesaid Jeffrey Howard Archer were then filled in as follows: sex: male; age: 35; date of birth: 15.4.1940; height: 5 ft 10 ins; weight: 165 lbs; eyes: blue; hair: brown; married: yes; address: 24A The Boltons, London SW1. The merchandise taken was listed as three suits, valued at $140, $175 and $225, and the witnesses to the document were two Simpson’s store detectives, M. St Jean and Y. Jorken. Across the bottom of the document were typed the words: ‘charges withdrawn at request of 52 detectives’ (Toronto’s No 52 police precinct covers the area round Simpson’s).

The story of Archer and the suits had been vaguely circulating round Fleet Street for some years. While preparing a profile of Archer when he was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985, my Mirror colleague Bryan Rostron and I wrote to him asking about the Toronto rumour. Back came a firm reply from Geoffrey Grimes, a celebrated solicitor then acting for Archer: ‘Mr Archer was not involved in this incident.’ That seemed to be the end of the matter. Two years later, how were we to interpret this Simpson’s document? Jeffrey Archer, after all, was in Toronto on 18 November 1975 – he had given evidence for the prosecution in a big federal fraud trial the previous day. The federal detective in charge of the case was George Wool, and his deputy was Larry Park. Both men told us how, on the day after Archer gave evidence, they were contacted at lunchtime by a Toronto policeman who said he’d got a suspected shoplifter in the station. The prisoner claimed to be Jeffrey Archer, a former British MP, who was an important witness in a big fraud trial. Wool confirmed that a man called Archer was indeed his witness in the fraud case. Soon afterwards the prisoner was released without charge.

The Simpson’s document seemed to be proof that the arrested man was indeed Jeffrey Archer, the former Tory MP for Louth. Every single detail on it fitted Archer. But was the document genuine? It was a photocopy, and was not signed – by Jeffrey Archer or anyone else. The answer, we surmised, was yes. The document had been ‘liberated’ from Simpson’s by a former staff member hoping to sell it to the Star for their defence in the libel action. I even had the name and telephone number of the man who’d taken it.

I flew to Toronto immediately and spent three days there. First, I met the man who’d taken the document, who assured me that the Archer incident would be quickly confirmed by the store detectives who’d arrested him. The next day I tracked down Messrs St Jean and Jorken, neither of whom still worked at Simpson’s. St Jean brusquely told me he would not even tell his wife about his arrests in the store, and showed me the door. When I first phoned Jorken, who had since joined the Toronto police, he remembered the incident very clearly. I fought my way through a Toronto traffic jam to show him my picture of Archer in 1975, and ask him if this was the man he’d arrested. When I got to his house, he didn’t want to discuss the matter any more, and was most anxious that I should leave.

At police headquarters the press office offered me everything short of information. No, they could not confirm the arrest; no, they did not know the name of the arresting officer etc. Then the man who’d stolen the document rang me to say all hell had broken loose in Simpson’s as a result of my inquiries and the best thing I could do was hop it back to London. At Simpson’s, where I went at once, I was treated with supreme courtesy, shoved from manager to manager, none of whom showed the slightest interest in the Archer document except to ask how I had got it. My only success was an interview with Doug Hunt, who was then Assistant Attorney General for social democratic Ontario (poor Ontario has since been engulfed by a right-wing tidal wave). Hunt sat surrounded by advisers, fascinated by my story, the Simpson’s document and the Archer denial. ‘Of course it was Jeffrey Archer,’ he said. ‘We all know it was Archer.’ Hunt instructed his advisers to ‘help this journalist – he is after the truth.’ The advisers nodded sagely, and provided me with absolutely nothing.

I flew back to London miserable, with only one or two shreds of evidence to support the document. A few days later Bryan Rostron managed to contact Craig Carle, the policeman from 52 precinct who’d arrested Archer. He remembered the incident, was keen to help, and asked Bryan to ring back. The following day he was absolutely sure he didn’t want to co-operate with us in any way. We wrote again to Archer. When we’d originally asked him about the Toronto suits, we noted, we’d got the date wrong, suggesting the incident took place in 1976. Now we could confirm the November 1975 date from the Simpson’s document, which we described. We asked Archer if, in the light of the document and my experiences in Toronto, he would like to reconsider his original denial. This time, Archer dealt with the matter himself. On his headed notepaper he wrote in his own round babyish hand a couple of terse sentences: ‘Thank you for your letter. I was not involved in this incident.’

Archer had just won a cool half-million from the Star in his libel action. When we presented Richard Stott, the editor of the Mirror, with the results of our enquiries, he was understandably cautious. I had no written statement from anyone who actually knew that the arrested man was our Jeffrey. Supposing it was someone else, an impostor? In vain we pleaded that no impostor could have known Archer’s personal details, let alone his involvement in the fraud trial. Confronted with Archer’s bald denial, however, Stott could not possibly publish the story – and we knew it. He was philosophical about it. A thousand quid of Mirror money had gone down the drain – but those were the days when the Mirror spent money on assisting journalists rather than sacking them. We crept away, licked our wounds and determined never to forget.

Halfway through Michael Crick’s magnificently rigorous biography of Jeffrey Archer, he deals with the story of the Toronto suits. All the main characters are here again – George Wool, Larry Park, Doug Hunt – all repeating what they’d been told about the man called Archer who’d taken the Simpson’s suits. Crick had more luck than we did with Craig Carle, the arresting officer. ‘I remember the three suits,’ Crick quotes Carle as saying. ‘I remember him saying he was a very important witness in a case.’ Crick concludes that the whole affair was a misunderstanding – that Archer had indeed taken three suits from Simpson’s and had carried them out onto a bridge which connected the store to another. ‘He claimed he didn’t realise he had left one shop and was on his way to another.’ This reasonable, if generous, explanation is backed up by the geography of the shops. But it is of no use to me or Bryan Rostron. We are still hypnotised by Archer’s words: ‘I was not involved in this incident.’ According to Crick, he certainly was.

Could Archer have been, to use the fashionable phrase, ‘economical with the truth’? Crick’s biography does little to dispel that possibility. Indeed his central theme is Archer’s epic economy with the truth. ‘My father,’ Archer once claimed, ‘was a colonel in the Somerset Light Infantry.’ No, he was not – nothing of the kind. ‘My father won the DCM’ – no, he didn’t. ‘My grandfather was Lord Mayor of Bristol’ – completely untrue. Archer claimed he was the youngest GLC councillor in 1967 – not at all. He said he was the youngest MP in 1969, but he wasn’t. In January 1986, his lawyers claimed in a letter to me that the International Federation of Physical Culture was ‘a society which Archer joined when he was in America and his membership lapsed in 1967.’ Nonsense. The ‘IFPC’, membership of which had been used more than once by Archer to help cover up his almost complete lack of educational qualifications, is exposed by Crick as a body-building correspondence course based in a tiny office in Chancery Lane.

These are all relatively trivial matters which can be put down to a predilection for hyperbole. But what about filling in other GLC Tory councillors’ expense forms in exchange for 10 per cent of the take? Archer told Crick he had never done anything of the kind, and went on: ‘If this question is asked again to any person I shall place the matter in the hands of solicitors.’ Crick bravely calls his bluff, and prints the fact anyway. After all, he had found no fewer than 24 former councillors to back the story. What about the row over his expense claims at the UNA which nearly blocked his political career before it had really started? He was claiming for meals and journeys which other people had paid for. Archer denied these allegations, too – but when confronted with the documents had to agree they were correct.

Come to that, what about the Star libel action – perhaps the crudest ever display of class justice in the British courts. Archer had sent an aide with an envelope containing thousands of pounds in £50 notes to a prostitute after she rang him to say the press were bothering her with stories about her having had sex with him. He denied the sex, but sent the money to help her go abroad. Confronted, on the one hand, with a millionaire former Oxford running blue, a former Deputy Chairman of the Tory Party, and his fragrant wife, who was highly connected at Lloyd’s of London, and on the other, with a prostitute from Rochdale, the whole court, supported by the Tory press, rolled over in an ecstasy of class solidarity and concluded that, without a doubt, Archer had sent the money to the prostitute because he felt sorry for her. He’d been a bit of a fool to do that, he later admitted, in one of those candid confessions which never fail to impress the people who matter. He was a bit of a fool, too, to make a mighty profit on buying and selling Anglia TV shares at the time of a juicy take-over when his wife was on the board. Naturally, he could not conceivably have been guilty of insider trading – had he not attacked insider dealers with almost as much vehemence as he constantly attacks common criminals?

I have picked some of the juicier plums from Crick’s groaning tree. Crick reveals that he and his wife spoke to a thousand witnesses while preparing this book, and the scope and volume of the research are truly prodigious. The indictment against Archer is immense, and is spoiled only occasionally when Crick, against his better judgment, falls for what he calls the ‘amiable rogue’ theory of Jeffrey Archer. Try as he might, he can’t find very much that is amiable in his subject. Even at police college – Archer was very briefly a constable with the Metropolitan Police – most of his colleagues agreed that Archer was a ‘pain in the arse’. Crick also reveals that as he got richer, Archer got ruder, revelling in insulting and embarrassing editors, PAs and minions who can’t answer back. He is not an amiable rogue at all, but a nasty, hypocritical charlatan whose economy with the truth, Thatcherite politics and ability to write sentimental trash (and choose editors who make it readable) make him a paragon of the age of avarice, fit only for the House of Lords. As I write this, Archer is enjoying his ‘come-back’ from the Anglia TV scandal. Here he is on the telly, strutting about the constituency of Littleborough and Saddleworth in support, as usual, of a doomed Tory candidate. A bus of Labour supporters passes, jeering at him. Archer turns to the cameras: ‘If that is the voice of New Labour,’ he intones portentously, ‘then God preserve us.’ Crick cannot discover whether Archer really believes in God. The evidence of his book, however, is heavily weighted against God’s existence. Any omnipotent deity with a grain of mercy would surely have preserved us from Jeffrey Archer.