Always go to a storyteller if you want a sparky answer to a question. What does Jeffrey Archer, bestselling author, member of the House of Lords, one-time candidate for Mayor of London and prison diarist, think will happen to American politics next? Comes the reply: Angelina Jolie. Or perhaps George Clooney. Or maybe even Tom Hanks. One of these, argues Archer, will run for president next time. ‘And why wouldn’t they win?’
He expands. ‘I’ve given in now. The days of spending your life in politics, learning politics, getting ready for high office, are gone. You can have it tomorrow. Macron got it in one minute.’
The words might seem rueful but the tone they’re delivered in is anything but. Archer is chipper, full of comic barks and growls, whizzing out anecdotes and judgments with theatricality, and declaring himself pretty happy with his lot. He has a new book out, a collection of short stories called Tell Tale, which also includes the first four chapters of Heads You Win, a novel to be released next year. His publishers, he tells me, ‘are saying it’s the new Kane and Abel’, his 1979 novel now in its 108th edition. Tell Tale includes versions of the stories that Archer collects from friends and acquaintances, not to mention those he finds himself sitting next to at dinner. ‘Some of them think their lives are truly amazing, so I often say to them: have you killed anybody? Recently? OK, keep going.’
Each new book is drafted — by hand — at the house he built himself overlooking the sea in Majorca; when he works on the numerous drafts that follow he does so from the Thames penthouse we’re sitting in, or from the folly at the end of his garden in Cambridgeshire. ‘Commuting is such a bore,’ he says, although he admires his wife Mary’s ability to work on trains. Now chair of the Science Museum, Baroness Archer is still working at full tilt, and even her husband finds it hard to infiltrate her diary. ‘The boys got an appointment with her the other day, which was amazing. I congratulated them. And she cancelled it!’
But Archer, now 77, doesn’t seem to be easing off either. Writing, he says, takes up more of his time than ever ‘because I’m fearful of death. I know what the next three books are, and I want to write them.’ He clarifies. ‘Not fearful of it in the sense that if I dropped dead this afternoon I couldn’t complain. I’ve had an amazingly privileged life, an amazingly interesting life. But there are no virtues in age. I don’t enjoy it.’ He can no longer run, although he does work with a personal trainer three times a week.
He does, nonetheless, manage to fit in what he describes as his hobby: running charity auctions, raffling off holidays in the Bahamas, diamond necklaces, training weekends with the Marines, dinners cooked by the finest gastronomy has to offer (‘I’ve sold all the great chefs — they’re not cheap’). His tally stands at more than 1,000 and he’s raised just over £50 million. ‘But you never see it in the press. Never.’ Why does he think that is? ‘They don’t like writing nice things.’
But aside from these interests (he’s also at the theatre at least once a week) Archer keeps a beady eye on the shifting sands of politics. ‘Last week,’ he tells me, ‘I dined with the chairman of the party and with the Lord Speaker, separately. Mind you, the Lord Speaker and I are so old all we can discuss is Margaret Thatcher. But yes, I’m fascinated by it, and at the same time, quite worried.’
What’s troubling him? ‘Today’s headline is the Catalans. If we can hold an independence vote for Scotland, why shouldn’t the Spanish hold one for the Catalans? If they want independence, why shouldn’t they have it?’
And what about closer to home? ‘I’m fairly convinced Corbyn will be prime minister,’ he says. ‘They’re sick of us.’ I ask if he thinks they’re right to be. ‘Well, time is always a problem, isn’t it?’ he replies. ‘Margaret stayed too long — not that any of us had the courage to tell her. If we last another two or three years people will just say, “Well, let’s try the other side.”’
Does he think Theresa May will still be there? ‘Oh yes,’ he replies confidently. ‘Who’s going to take her place?’ He ponders. ‘It would have been very interesting if George Osborne had remained in the Commons. But he didn’t. So that’s gone. But as it is, I don’t see anyone. They all tell me we’re going to skip a generation and there are four or five names who are much younger that she should put in the cabinet now, so that we can find out if they’re any good.’
He returns to an earlier conversation about Shakespeare and says of Osborne: ‘He’s in a different class when it comes to revenge. Will Shakespeare would have loved George Osborne. How Shakespeare would have ended it, I don’t know. One of them would have had to die — if not both.’
Archer would, he says, have voted for some of Corbyn’s manifesto — ‘half of it was OK by me’ — and he understands the appeal of what he calls the Labour leader’s authenticity. ‘His problem is, in my view, Momentum. Because they’re genuinely dangerous. They will remove decent, middle-class thinkers out of the Labour party. They’ll just get rid of them in favour of communists.’ He wishes May had confronted Labour protestors during the election campaign, as he did once when campaigning on Alan Duncan’s behalf. In the face of people shouting him down, he sat on a monument and waited for the hecklers to arrive. ‘I love it!’ he says. ‘They can’t do a thing, and if they do, we’ll win by 200 seats.’
Does he regret that his career in front- bench politics ended as soon as it did?
‘Oh no. I think Enoch Powell was right: most political careers end in tears and very few people feel they’ve succeeded in politics.’ As a lifelong fan of the capital and someone who began his political career on the Greater London Council, the mayoralty is perhaps the one thing he minds missing out on. ‘I’d love to have been mayor. I wasn’t. End of discussion. I failed! End of discussion. Failure!’ He bursts out laughing.
We’ve ranged widely, I say as I take my leave, and we probably haven’t stuck quite as closely to the subject of short stories as we should have (for the record, his favourites are by Saki, Maupassant, O. Henry, Narayan and Scott Fitzgerald). Never mind, he says. ‘I can’t complain! You’ll be shot as you leave!’
Jeffrey Archer speaks to Isabel Hardman on The Spectator Podcast.