Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

Jeffrey Archer: ‘Mary would run the NHS beautifully’

March 22, 2013 @ 7:30 am

First and foremost, though, we talk about Mary, the widely admired scientist (her specialty is solar power). His wife left Cheltenham Ladies’ College for Oxford at 16, got a first in chemistry and became a don. At 40 she moved from lecturing to hospital administration. Once on the board of Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, she quickly progressed to become its chairman. Under her management, the teaching hospital continuously ranked among the top in Britain, and the Care Quality Commission rated its emergency services as the “best‑performing” in the country.

A woman of such abilities, I suggest, should run the entire NHS. Clearly the Government, which has made noises about replacing the embattled Sir David Nicholson following the Mid Staffs crisis, should be taking note. “You’re not the only person to say that,” Archer’s eyes twinkle. “The Government has called her in three times in the last month.”

He won’t tell me what Dame Mary thinks of Nicholson. But, as for the NHS, he grins: “She’d run it beautifully.”

Archer speaks with the pride of a husband and the rather more surprising conviction of a lifelong feminist. “You’re right!” he says with delight. “There were three strong women in my life. Mary, my mother and Margaret [Thatcher].” He said recently after a visit to the ex-PM, that the Baroness hadn’t recognised him but he won’t be drawn further. “All three women had class A brains and real grit. As Mary likes to say, 'I can’t wait for the day when a mediocre woman will replace a mediocre man.’ ”

No danger of either Archer being accused of mediocrity. While Dame Mary shone in the sciences, Jeffrey boasted his own glittering prizes. He was an Olympic sprinter who ran the 100 yards in under 10 seconds. He has sold more than 120 million copies of his novels worldwide. He has been an MP, a peer, and chairman of the Tory party. And his art collection includes a Picasso and a Monet (I spotted two Vuillards in the loo). He has also reinvented himself more often than any other figure in public life.

He’s had to: scandals have rocked his career from the outset. Archer’s life story, so preposterous that he himself admits “no one would believe it in a novel”, is well-known.

His father William, a conman, died when Jeffrey was 11. Young Jeffrey won a scholarship to Wellington School (not, as he pretended, to the more famous Wellington College), then a place on the British Olympic team. He went to Brasenose College, Oxford – where, as Michael Crick’s warts-and-all biography of him makes clear, he briefly enrolled in a teacher training course, rather than as an undergraduate. Before the age of 30, he was elected MP for Louth, but had to resign from his seat over a bad investment that left him practically bankrupt. He turned to writing. His second novel, Kane and Abel, sold 33 million copies worldwide and earned him an entrée with the great and good. In 1986, Archer successfully sued a tabloid for libel after it published a story about him sleeping with the prostitute Monica Coghlan. Margaret Thatcher, for whom he served as Tory party chairman, made him a peer in 1992 and he stood for Mayor of London in 1999. Then, in a plot twist he has often used himself, a bitter friend emerged from his past to query Archer’s testimony in the libel case. Ted Francis said Archer had asked him to provide a false alibi. The ensuing perjury investigation resulted in a conviction of four years. Archer served two of them.

I never met Lord Archer before he was imprisoned, but I remember the bombastic persona. The man I meet now is energetic but not loud, charming but not fawning. His gaze is shrewd, his manner unexpectedly modest: he pays homage to women who are far cleverer than him – not only his wife and Baroness Thatcher but also the late Philippa Foot, the philosopher, and the comedian Sandi Toksvig. He calls himself a storyteller rather than a writer, and says he relishes his role as a popular charity auctioneer because it allows him to do some good. I’m loath to use words like atonement and redemption, but there’s something of the Prodigal Son about this new Jeffrey Archer.

I ask him about the party he loves: what does he make of David Cameron? “He’s done as good a job as he could under the circumstances. It’s an ungovernable party at present. A third of his MPs don’t believe in what he’s doing, a third think they should be in Cabinet but aren’t, and a third are only thinking about keeping their seats.”

He thinks Cameron “crucifies himself over the Bullingdon thing. But if going to Eton, going to Oxford and getting a first is held against you, what kind of a country is that?”

Archer says he has no time for disloyalty, condemning the “treacherous ones who’re plotting behind the PM’s back”. I ask if he means Theresa May, the Home Secretary rumoured to be setting her stall for a leadership bid.

“No, she’s not a plotter,” he says. “Mary said to me the other day, 'There’s a bit of Margaret [Thatcher] in her’, and I know what she means. She’s been very impressive as Home Secretary. Yet that is a graveyard slot for most politicians.”

But nothing can dispel the gloom among Tories: “There are two Tory parties now – Ukip and the Conservatives.”

Does he think Labour a shoo-in for 2015 then?

“No. Ed Miliband doesn’t have it in him. David would have been better. And Ed Balls could still lose them the election: people are really scared of him. But that’s typical of Labour,” he shrugs, “the party loves losers: Tony Benn and Michael Foot are universally adored, while Tony Blair, who won them three elections, was booed at their last party conference. I like Blair. He’s a winner. But Labour is all about envy.”

Envy, the dirty business of politics, progress and greed are themes that feature heavily in his new book. I enjoyed it, and tell Archer so. He beams – and is only a little crestfallen when I tell him it saw me through the flu: “You only read it because you were bed-bound?” Resilience is his trademark, though, and he immediately regales me with more anecdotes.

“On the last day on the tour in India, as I was being driven to the airport, we stopped at the lights and a little boy carrying a pile of books knocked on the window of the car. 'Do you want the latest Jeffrey Archer?’ he asked me. 'I am the latest Jeffrey Archer,’ I told him.” He roars with laughter.

Jeffrey Archer’s latest incarnation may be the best one yet.

'Best Kept Secret’ (Macmillan, £20) is available from Telegraph Books for £17.99 + £1.35 pp. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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