Lord Lambton - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Lord Lambton

Junior defence minister in the Heath government who resigned after a call-girl and drugs scandal


Antony Claud Frederick Lambton, politician and writer: born 10 July 1922; styled 1941-70 Viscount Lambton; MP (Conservative) for Berwick-upon-Tweed 1951-73; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary 1955-57; succeeded 1970 as sixth Earl of Durham, disclaimed peerage for life 1970, desiring to be known as Lord Lambton; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 1970-73; married 1942 Belinda Blew-Jones (died 2003; one son, four daughters); died Sovicille, Italy 30 December 2006.

When Antony Lambton joined Edward Heath's government in 1970 as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence, he was given responsibility for the Royal Air Force. By his own confession, there was so little work involved that he resorted to drugs, gardening and debauchery to keep himself sane. The result was a rerun of the Profumo scandal in a distinctly minor key.

Until then, despite 19 years on the back benches, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed's only taste of office had been as Selwyn Lloyd's Parliamentary Private Secretary at Supply, Defence and the Foreign Office, 1955-57. He had resigned in protest at the ignominious way in which the Eden government was capitulating to American pressure over Suez, and he never forgave Macmillan for his "betrayal" of Eden. Lambton was to abstain on the Profumo vote in 1963, which very nearly brought Macmillan down and his vendetta continued to the end, a series of articles in 1980 in James Goldsmith's short-lived periodical Now lambasting Macmillan for "a seven-year rule of wasted time".

Lambton was a defender of the leadership of his cousin, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, noting correctly in an article for the Evening Standard in 1965 that if Harold Wilson was taking such pains to discredit him, he must fear Home as a dangerous opponent. When Home chose to stand down, Lambton was one of the principal organisers of Reginald Maudling's campaign for the Conservative leadership. Peter Walker, who organised Heath's victorious campaign, felt that his opponents had never worked out how to set about their task. Heath recognised Lambton's ability: he made him a defence spokesman and gave him junior office, minimal but acceptable rewards for an intelligent and independent-minded right-winger, who at 48 still had the capacity to go further.

Months before the Conservative victory in 1970, Lambton's father had died and he had succeeded as sixth Earl of Durham. After careful consideration, he disclaimed the title and almost immediately became locked in an extraordinary struggle with the parliamentary clerks to retain his ability to use the courtesy title of Viscount Lambton with which press and public were familiar. It was a long struggle, resolved in his favour eventually. The effort that he devoted to it and the apparent lack of proportion shown might have been taken to be indications of a man reaching the end of his tether, increasingly frustrated with his life.

He was brought down by his sexual indiscretions. The scandal had begun to emerge in March 1973 when a police raid on a Soho pornography shop had turned up a notebook full of coded names and addresses. The only uncoded name was that of the Leader of the Lords, Earl Jellicoe. As the police began to close in, the owner of the business, Colin Levy, attempted to use his knowledge of his wife Norma's activities to warn them off.

Allegedly she was part of a ring of 15 call girls who would only service "millionaires and top people". Lambton had been one of her clients for rather more than the year that he publicly admitted. At first he used an alias, Mr Lucas, but he became careless: his real name was on his clothing and on one occasion he had paid her with a personal cheque.

After a domestic dispute, Colin Levy went abroad and his wife told the police that he had gone to buy drugs. She let slip that Lambton was one of her clients. When the police pounced on Levy, they found no drugs, but he promptly implicated Lambton in both drugs and prostitution. The information was passed via the Serious Crimes Squad and MI5 to the Home Secretary. Heath, when informed, asked MI5 to co-operate with the police in obtaining evidence.

Levy's next move was to tell the News of the World and install a camera in his wife's flat. The first pictures offered to the paper on 5 May were of such poor quality that it installed its own camera, together with a microphone concealed in a teddy bear. On 9 May Levy recorded Lambton and Norma talking about drugs. On the following day the camera captured him cavorting naked with Norma and another prostitute called Kim. The News of the World decided not to pursue the story and Levy, after failing to interest the German magazine Stern, sold it to The People, who handed the material straight to the police.

The government had no wish to pre-empt police enquiries and Robert Carr, the Home Secretary, observed that it was not a crime to have a mistress and that there was no proof that Lambton had been taking drugs. It was suggested that Home might confront his cousin, but the Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, vetoed the move lest it prejudice what the police were doing. However, news that the Murdoch press had a story reached the whips on 14 May, while Norma Levy had decided to confide in a previous employer, Helen O'Brien.

By way of a mutual acquaintance, she passed the news to James Prior, the Leader of the House of Commons and, acting on the advice of the Cabinet Secretary, he met her in company with the Prime Minister's private secretary. The tale she told was one of intrigue and corruption in which it became clear that a number of the police officers involved were guilty of misbehaviour. Heath met with Carr, Prior, the Chief Whip, the Cabinet Secretary and his private secretary on 18 May and agreed that the security service should consider the Levys and their circle from the security angle, but without prejudicing police investigations. It speedily became clear that there was little worry on that score, and it was decided that nothing further need be done until the police had interviewed Lambton.

Ironically, Lambton had written critically about the morality of the Macmillan government at the time of the Profumo affair and had argued that as soon as rumours had begun to circulate about his involvement with call girls, Profumo should have resigned. Lambton proved to be as good as his word. Interviewed by the police on 21 May, he immediately saw the Chief Whip, admitted that he was the man in the compromising photographs and that he had been smoking cannabis. He said that there had been no attempt at blackmail and no threat to national security, but that in the light of possible criminal charges he wished to resign straightaway. His resignation was announced the following day. The Attorney General indicated that he would be prosecuted for a criminal offence and he was eventually found guilty of possession - he always denied that the stock of drugs found by the police was for his own use.

Asked by Robin Day on television, "Why should a man of your charm and personality have to go to whores for sex?", he replied: "I think that people sometimes like variety. I think it's as simple as that and I think that impulse is understood by almost everybody. Don't you? "

He admitted to having used drugs, a habit he had picked up in Singapore, but "taking opium in China is different to taking it in Berwick-on-Tweed". But his public nonchalance concealed a deeply troubled man, as his interviews with MI5 showed clearly.

Almost by chance, he had brought down a much more distinguished figure, Lord Jellicoe, who had entertained call girls in his own flat. When his resignation was announced two days later, Lambton told the press: "The way things are going it will soon be clear that Heath is the only member of the government who doesn't do it." But despite the rumours, there were no more resignations. Instead, Heath asked Lord Diplock to report on the security risks and the verdict was unequivocal: Jellicoe had committed no offence, but Lambton had opened himself to blackmail and would henceforth have been refused access to secret material.

Antony Claud Frederick Lambton was born in 1922, the second son of the fifth Earl of Durham. When his brother committed suicide in 1941 (latest in a series of violent deaths that allowed the press time and again to recycle stories of the family curse associated with the giant worm killed by one of his forebears), Antony became the heir to the Earldom and took the courtesy title of Viscount Lambton. He was educated at Harrow and during the Second World War served briefly in the Hampshire Regiment before being invalided out. He then went to work in a munitions factory in Wallsend.

During the war he had married Belinda Blew-Jones, known as Bindy, and she proved a considerable help to his political activities. He first stood for Parliament in the safe Labour seat of Chester-le-Street in 1945. He was elected on to the Durham City Council and the Durham County Council in 1947, but decided not to stand again after serving for two years.

Instead, he fought Hugh Dalton at Bishop Auckland in the 1950 general election. He was then adopted for Berwick-upon-Tweed and elected in October 1951. He held the seat in five general elections, helped after 1959 by the intervention of a Liberal candidate who split the opposition vote. The seat was lost to the Liberals in the by-election that followed his resignation.

In his backbench years, Lambton wrote a great deal for the press, principally the Beaverbrook papers, and he and his wife entertained lavishly and had a wide circle of friends. They had four daughters and then, to their delight, a son and heir was born in 1961, an event signalled by a huge bonfire on Penshaw Hill, the legendary lair of the worm. They were determined to give their children an idyllic life, caravanning and holidaying in places as various as Blackpool and Greece. Bindy indulged in deep-sea diving and other adventurous pursuits, but in the 1960s she suffered three bad accidents, and never fully recovered.

The immediate reaction of Lambton's family when he resigned was to stand by him; but it was not long before he was off to Italy with a new partner, Claire Ward, leaving his wife to reign at their Durham home, Biddick Hall. Lambton spent the rest of his life restoring the Villa Cetinale near Siena and creating a magnificent garden, but he also found time to continue with his journalism and to write novels and short stories - Snow and Other Stories (1983); Elizabeth and Alexandra (1985); The Abbey in the Wood (1986); and Pig and Other Stories (1990).

His final obsession was with the myths that Earl Mountbatten of Burma had created about his family and The Mountbattens, published in 1989, was a well-researched exposé, replete with its own quota of scandal.

John Barnes

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