Secretary of State for War sensationally forced out of politics after lying to the House of Commons
Saturday 11 March 2006
John Dennis Profumo, politician: born 30 January 1915; succeeded 1940 as fifth Baron Profumo of Italy; MP (Conservative) for Kettering 1940-45, for Stratford-upon-Avon 1950-63; OBE 1944, CBE 1975; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation 1952-57; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies 1957-58; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Affairs 1958-59, Minister of State 1959-60; Secretary of State for War 1960-63; PC 1960 (resigned 1963); Chairman, Toynbee Hall 1982-85, President 1985-2006; married 1954 Valerie Hobson (died 1998; one son); died London 9 March 2006.
John Profumo, aged 84, smiled ruefully in 1999 at how President Bill Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Profumo was only a bit player in the "Profumo affair" 36 years before which brought a humiliating end to his political career and nearly brought down Harold Macmillan's government.
It all began on a warm Saturday evening in July 1961 when Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, and his wife were guests for the weekend at the Cliveden Estate of his louche friend Viscount (Bill) Astor. The two, middle-aged and squeezed into their dinner jackets, encountered the attractive 19-year-old call girl Christine Keeler, naked in the swimming pool. Profumo was smitten and within days had started a relationship with her.
This began one of the biggest political scandals of the century. It encompassed the trial and eventual suicide of Stephen Ward, a society osteopath and self-claimed agent of British intelligence, allegations of espionage and threats to national security (because Keeler was simultaneously sleeping with a Soviet naval attaché, Captain Eugene Ivanov), and led to an inquiry by Lord Denning.
Profumo was born in 1915, the son of a wealthy Italian baron who was a successful barrister and a KC, active in Conservative politics. After Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford, John Profumo travelled widely, with an eye to entering politics as a Conservative.
He won a by-election at Kettering in early 1940 and soon made his mark. On 8 May he was one of 40 Conservative MPs (and when he died the last survivor of those) who voted against Neville Chamberlain after the failed Norwegian campaign - with the result that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. While a serving MP, Profumo had a good war in North Africa, was mentioned in Dispatches and promoted to brigadier in 1945. After losing his seat in the Labour landslide of that year, he spent two more years in the Army, as head of the UK mission in Japan, working with General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1947 he joined the Conservative Central Office as the party's first head of broadcasting. He set up a unit to monitor left-wing bias at the BBC, a practice emulated by his successors, and sought to educate party leaders to the growing importance of television. John Profumo was highly regarded by the party chairman, Lord Woolton, and well placed to resume his political career, which he did by winning Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1950 general election.
Profumo was one of a group of Conservative backbenchers who campaigned to end the monopoly of the BBC and paved the way for the creation of Independent Television in 1955. On New Year's Eve 1954 he married Valerie Hobson, the film and stage actress. Her career was reviving after a lull and she had a starring role in The King and I at the time. She was prepared to retire on this note, believing that nothing could better it, and readily sacrificed her career for marriage. He was short, prematurely bald, and rather nondescript in appearance. He also had a natural charm, and was excellent company, self-assured and generous.
John Profumo's political progress was steady rather than spectacular. He held a number of junior ministerial appointments before becoming Minister of State at the Foreign Office in 1959. In this post he made an important speech supporting European unity, at a time when Macmillan's mind was turning towards British entry into the Common Market. A year later, on 27 July 1960, he was promoted to Secretary of State for War. Aged 45, rich, elegantly dressed, highly regarded by colleagues, and with an attractive wife, he had reason to feel pleased with life. A cabinet seat was now a reasonable expectation.
This bright prospect was smashed by what he sometimes called "the Keeler interlude". He had stopped seeing Christine Keeler at the end of 1961. But rumours about the relationship grew and Keeler saw the chance of cashing in on press interest in her story. On 21 March 1963 the egregious Labour MP George Wigg, adviser to the new Labour leader Harold Wilson on security matters, intervened. He took advantage of parliamentary privilege to ask a question about the affair and its security aspects.
Party managers and law officers raised Profumo from his sleep and advised him that a unique opportunity had arisen for him to quash the rumours that had been circulating about him, by making a personal statement to the House. He agreed and with his solicitor a statement was prepared for him to make in the Commons the next day. In this, he denied any improper relationship with Keeler and threatened to sue if the allegations were repeated outside the House of Commons.
That was the fatal step.
The rumours continued and Macmillan set up an inquiry. Profumo was summoned from holiday in Venice with Valerie in early June. He knew the game was up and confessed to his wife. On his return he admitted that he had lied to the House of Commons and resigned immediately. He had committed a gross contempt of the House and his name was removed from the list of the Privy Council. He had won notoriety, and his photograph appeared in every newspaper.
Harold Macmillan never got over the affair. He found the whole business distasteful and had little understanding of the lifestyle of the participants ("everybody's darling" he complained). In a Commons vote on the adjournment 27 Conservative backbenchers abstained. The Government was tottering. The media frenziedly seized on and exaggerated rumours of sexual orgies and espionage in high places.
Profumo disappeared from public life. For a time high society virtually shunned him and his wife. In June 1963, in the course of a television interview, Viscount Hailsham, his former fellow MP Quintin Hogg, spoke contemptuously of "a squalid affair between a woman of easy virtue and a proven liar". Thirty years later he expressed regret for the comment and doubted whether many other men would have handled themselves so well.
The couple devoted themselves to charitable work, Profumo becoming President of Toynbee Hall, a welfare organisation for the poor and victims of drugs and alcohol in the East End of London. He had a genuine concern for those in need and his charm stood him in good stead when he collected rent from the old ladies. There were many stories to the effect that he was atoning for lying about his relationship with an attractive tart. Although he felt badly about the lying and betrayal of friends, his downfall seemed disproportionate. Many sensed a stench of hypocrisy.
Profumo could have asked for an inquiry, stepped down from his post and waited for security clearance. He could have avoided deceiving the Commons. What is undeniable, however, is that he had behaved recklessly, not least given the climate of opinion in the early 1960s. Moreover, he had a liking for casual sex and had earlier been warned by the police about such encounters.
Christine Keeler wrote two autobiographies, one of which, Scandal! (1989), was turned into a film, with Ian McKellen in Profumo's role. Profumo kept his silence and in 1975, for his charitable work, was promoted CBE.
Those who were present in the chamber of the House of Commons on that Thursday evening of 21 March 1963 will never forget the occasion, writes Tam Dalyell. Most MPs had departed. The Consolidated Fund No 2 Bill, then open-ended, meant that there would be no vote. But many of the most heavyweight figures had stayed for the first topic, in which George Brown led for the Opposition on the contentious case of Chief Enahoro of Nigeria, Henry Brooke replying for the Government. The high feelings generated by the Enahoro cause célèbre contributed to what followed.
After more than five hours, the second topic appeared on the old annunciator - "Journalists (Imprisonment)" - raised by Peter Kirk, worried about the imprisonment of Reginald Foster, of the Daily Sketch, and Brendan Mulholland, of the Daily Mail, for refusing to reveal their sources. This debate was the vehicle for George Wigg to say:
I . . . use the Privilege of the House of Commons - that is what it is given to me for - to ask the Home Secretary, who is the senior member of the Government on the Treasury Bench now, to go to the Dispatch Box - he knows that the rumour to which I refer relates to Miss Christine Keeler and Miss [Mandy Rice-]Davies and a shooting by a West Indian - and, on behalf of the Government, categorically deny the truth of these rumours.
On the other hand, if there is anything in them, I urge him to ask the Prime Minister to do what was not done in the Vassall [spy] case - set up a Select Committee - so that these things can be dissipated, and the honour of the minister concerned freed from the imputations and innuendoes that are being spread at the present time.
Like my parliamentary seniors present, I thought Wigg had gone over the top. But more was to come. Richard Crossman said:
The press in a society of our sort must have standards of integrity. But, if our society is to work, the Executive must have standards of honesty, too.
Crossman referred to the expectations that a Paris newspaper would have published in full the rumours which had run round the House of Commons and the country. "What do these rumours amount to?" demanded Reginald Paget, the Labour MP for Northampton:
They amount to the fact that a minister is said to be acquainted with an extremely pretty girl. As far as I am concerned, I should have thought that was a matter for congratulation rather than inquiry.
But Crossman was not to be deflected from his theme - the executive was trying to suppress information. Barbara Castle went further:
Is it the pursuit of sensationalism for its own sake, or could it be that there is public interest at the back of the agitation by the press? . . . What if it is a question of the perversion of justice that is at stake?
Fevered talks took place among senior members of the Government, involving the Leader of the House, Iain Macleod, and the Attorney General, Sir John Hobson. Later that night, they saw John Profumo. The upshot was that, at the start of Friday business, the Secretary of State for War made his celebrated statement:
I understand that my name has been connected with the rumours about the disappearance of Miss Keeler. I would like to take this opportunity of making a personal statement about these matters.
I last saw Miss Keeler in December 1961, and I have not seen her since. I have no idea where she is now . . . My wife and I first met Miss Keeler at a house party in July 1961 at Cliveden. Among a number of people there was Dr Stephen Ward whom we already knew slightly and a Mr Ivanov, who was an attaché at the Russian Embassy.
The only other occasion that my wife or I met Mr Ivanov was for a moment at the official reception for Major [Yuri] Gagarin at the Soviet Embassy.
My wife and I had a standing invitation to visit Dr Ward. Between July and December 1961 I met Miss Keeler on about half a dozen occasions at Dr Ward's flat when I called to see him and his friends. Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms. There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler . . . I shall not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous allegations are made or repeated outside the House.
Two months later, on 17 June, the Prime Minister, the great actor-manager himself Harold Macmillan, was either in or feigning tears. "A great shock has been given to Parliament and, indeed, to the whole country," he announced to the House:
On me, as head of the administration, what has happened has inflicted a deep, bitter, lasting wound. I do not remember, in the whole of my life, or even in the political history of the past, a case of a Minister of the Crown who has told a deliberate lie to his wife, to his legal advisers and to his ministerial colleagues, not once but over and over again, who has then repeated this lie to the House of Commons as a personal statement which, as the Right Honourable gentleman [Harold Wilson] reminded us, implies that it is privileged, and has subsequently taken legal action and recovered damages on the basis of a falsehood. This is almost unbelievable, but it is true.
The parliamentary end came on 20 June when we heard Iain Macleod move:
That Mr John Profumo, in making a personal statement to this House on 22 March 1963 which contained words which he later admitted not
to be true, was guilty of a grave contempt of this House.
It was neither the first, nor the last, nor anything like the most serious lie that has been told to the House of Commons - but it was found out and unsuccessful.
If an obituarist dwells on these events, it must be because it is they, not his otherwise estimable life of 48 years before, and 43 years after, 1963, that made John Profumo a person of lasting public fascination. And had it not been for Profumo one can convincingly surmise that British political history would have been different. Labour might not have won the general election, by three seats, in 1964.
Profumo's life was one of unstinting public service, overshadowed by one incident, one lie. Nor was it a simple lie. He had taken, I was told many years later by Lord Dilhorne, the then Lord Chancellor, sleeping tablets at the time of the Wigg/Crossman/Castle onslaught, was woken up, and was in a dopey state when he was interrogated on that fateful night. From this midnight session, the lying statement inexorably flowed.
It was that remarkable lady Stella, Marchioness of Reading, maybe at the insistence of her in-law relation, Solly Zuckerman, who suggested to Walter Birmingham, Warden of Toynbee Hall, in East London, that he should take Profumo as a volunteer. His appointment as CBE for his work there was at the recommendation of Harold Wilson. I share the view of Phillip Knightley, co-author of An Affair of State: the Profumo case and the framing of Stephen Ward (1987), that Profumo should have been sent to the Lords.
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