As an Old Etonian former aide to Winston Churchill, Robert Boothby would have seemed to have little in common with Ronnie Kray. Even in 1960s London, the East End gangster and the old school Tory peer hailed from opposite ends of the spectrum in Britain’s class-riven society.
But the extent to which these two unlikely associates came together in a heady cocktail of sex, dishonesty and sports cars - leading to an MI5 investigation and panic at the very top of the British government - is revealed today in previously unseen secret papers.
Both Lord Boothby and Kray, older than his brother Reggie by 45 minutes, were gay or bisexual and behaved, in the words of one source, as “hunters of young men” in the demi-monde of West End nightclubs and gambling dens owned by the twins prior to their arrest and conviction for murder in 1968.
New documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, disclose for the first time how the association in the early 1960s between a tainted former wartime minister and one half of the East End’s most notorious crime partnership was being closely followed by the Security Service and prompted concerns from the Home Secretary of the time that the liaison was about to spark a new Profumo scandal.
Despite homosexuality still being a crime until it was legalised 1967, Boothby was a regular on London’s underground gay scene - a netherworld also attended by Ronnie Kray, who it seems rapidly latched onto the presence of a senior politician in his social circle in the hope that his links to the Establishment would prove useful.
The documents describe how one morning in 1963 both Krays turned up at the peer’s central London home after several cheques were stolen from him at a restaurant owned by the brothers, whose reputation for disposing of those who had displeased them was already well established.
A MI5 memo said: “Their alleged reason for the call was to apologise to Lord Boothby for any inconvenience caused to him over his cheques. They explained that one of their chaps had been responsible but that he was now no longer with them and was unlikely to do that sort of thing again.”
The Krays had by this point graduated from their early income source of protection rackets in their native Stepney and beyond to live in faux respectability as nightclub owners, gathering a range of acquaintances from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland and being photographed by David Bailey.
Their celebrity status also drew the attention of Fleet Street and in July 1964, the Sunday Mirror published a front page story with the headline “Peer and a Gangster: Yard Probe”. It announced that police were investigating allegations of a gay relationship between Ronnie Kray and an unnamed politician, widely known in Westminster to be Lord Boothby.
But the story was inaccurate in one significant regard.
MI5, which had been monitoring the politician for decades, knew that while both men had had gay relations, it was not with each other.
The Security Service had been watching Lord Boothby, a stockbroker distantly related to Sir Ludovic Kennedy, since before the Second World War, when the peer had come to attention first as a suspected Communist sympathiser and later as a fascist sympathiser close to Oswald Mosley.
By 1963, the peer was regarded by many in Westminster as damaged goods, having been forced to resign as a junior minister in the Second World War over allegations that he was in the pay of a corrupt Czech businessman seeking to unfreeze assets held by the Bank of England.
His reputation as a lothario also went before him - he was known have had a long affair in the 1930s with Lady Dorothy Macmillan, wife of the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Lord Boothby was rumoured to have fathered Sir Harold’s youngest daughter, Sarah, but his voracious sexual appetite also extended to men.
A source, described by MI5 as a “self-confessed homosexual”, gave his controllers a series of detailed accounts of Lord Boothby’s encounters with the Krays and their acolytes, including Leslie Holt, a handsome former boxer from Stepney who had been engaged by the politician as his chauffeur and lover, and showered with gifts including an E-type Jaguar and a Ferrari.
In a verbatim account of his observations, the source said: “Boothby has been using him for a long time. He has given him expensive cars and they have even been to the opera together a couple of times, which is rather bold. They are genuinely attached; this is no fly-by-night affair.”
The report continued: “Boothby is a kinky fellow and likes to meet odd people, and Ronnie obviously wants to meet people of good social standing, he having the odd background he’s got; and, of course, both are queers.
“Leslie never suggested that there was any villainous association between the two and they are not likely to be linked by a queer attraction for each other: both are hunters (of young men).”
Although MI5 was careful to limit circulation of its dossier on Lord Boothby and a Labour MP, Tom Driberg, also believed to be connected to Ronnie Kray and the gay scene, the documents show that rumours about the episode had reached the highest level of government.
Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary in Alec Douglas-Home’s Conservative government, summoned Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, to ask if he could cast any light on the gossip circulating the corridors of power, expressing concern that it could develop into a repeat of the sex scandal which had ended the career of then War Secretary John Profumo a year earlier.
In an account of the meeting, Hollis wrote: “The Home Secretary and some of his colleagues felt that this might develop along the lines of the Profumo affair.
“I said that as far as I could see, no security issue was involved as Lord Boothby held no official position which gave him access to Government secrets and therefore the Security Service was not concerned.
“We did however almost inevitably receive a good deal of information and I knew that we had heard a story which associated Lord Boothby with the Krays and, furthermore, we had heard allegations that Lord Boothby was a homosexual.”
The reluctance of both Labour and the Conservative parties to draw attention to any further scandal, as well as the continuing ability of the Krays to spread intimidation far beyond their native Stepney, meant that the story ultimately fell from the headlines.
The Sunday Mirror apologised for its story, sacked its editor and ended up paying a substantial sum - £40,000 - in damages.
Lord Boothby, for his part, was shameless in his denial of his sexuality. In an interview at the time, he said: “My own experience is that the best way to treat the Press is perfect frankness and tell the truth. This is what I have done.”