When a parliamentarian “declares an interest” in a debate on the most famous British political scandal of the 20th century, you sit up and listen. Were we finally about to hear the authentic inside story of the affair between the beautiful Christine Keeler and War Minister John Profumo, whose 1963 resignation sealed the fate of Harold Macmillan’s government? Sadly, no. This was just Lord [Andrew] Lloyd-Webber joining appeals yesterday for the release of the secret papers on the scandal and explaining that his new musical is about Stephen Ward, the osteopath who introduced the couple during a pool party at Viscount Astor’s Cliveden mansion.
The appeals got nowhere. Ghosts from 1963, obscure and very famous, flitted briefly through the House of Lords after the Conservative historian Lord Lexden asked whether the Government would release the files of Lord Denning’s Profumo Inquiry. But if you listened carefully you could hear the soft but unmistakeable sound of the British establishment double-locking a green baize door on some of its darkest secrets from half-a-century ago.
The man doing the locking, ironically, was a Liberal Democrat, the Cabinet Office Minister Lord Wallace, who explained that the then Master of the Rolls had promised witnesses that their evidence would never come out, and “that it seems acceptable that they should not be published while those… interviewed by Lord Denning are still alive”.
Lord Wallace told peers that “officials have looked back at the archive … and have assured others, including myself, that there are still some sensational personal items in here which would be embarrassing if released”.
Given the continuing fascination with the case, it’s presumably easy to find Cabinet Office volunteers regularly willing to sift through the papers we can’t see.
He didn’t go as far as former Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong, who opposed publication not only during the lives of witnesses and others involved, but “perhaps during the lifetime of their descendants”. That sounds like “never” since, short of an inter-planetary invasion by earth-destroying aliens, it seems unlikely that no descendants of the hundreds caught up in the scandal will survive. Lord Armstrong then relented as far as saying it would “need something like 100 years before one can consider” publication.
But Lord Lexden pointed out that a “cloud of suspicion hangs over the Denning report”, which a recent book by Richard Davenport Hines had depicted as “an endorsement of tainted evidence” from colluding journalists and police at the trial (for procuring) of Stephen Ward that would make “Lord Leveson’s hair stand on end”. He didn’t mention Davenport Hines’ view that Ward was “hounded to death by the establishment” or that Ms Keeler “almost certainly did not have” the parallel affair with Russian naval attaché Evgeny Ivanov she was allegedly urged by reporters to claim she had, creating a major security scare.
As the Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler said, it’s unsurprising that we still don’t know the truth given “suspicions at the time of Soviet espionage and all the excitement of Cabinet members being involved in regular orgies”. When Ms Keeler’s feisty friend Mandy Rice Davies was told at Ward’s trial that Lord Astor had denied ever meeting her, she famously said: “He would, wouldn’t he?”
As the Government resisted calls for publication yesterday, you could almost hear Ms Rice Davies murmuring: “It would, wouldn’t it?”