FOR the past 30 years, John Profumo has worked tirelessly for Toynbee Hall, a charitable settlement in the East End of London. He has washed dishes, helped with the playgroup, collected rents. He has raised money, served on the charity's council, become its chairman and its president - the only person ever to hold that office other than Clement Attlee. To the Spitalfields locals, who use its facilities, he is known simply as 'Jack'; his fellow workers say it is unlikely that the East Enders he knows associate him with sex or spies.
They are alone. The name Profumo, to most people, means only one thing: scandal. His second career may have been a blameless life of dignity and service, but it is the first that people remember - the suave young government minister, once the youngest MP in Parliament, who married Valerie Hobson, star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, and resigned spectacularly 30 years ago last week, admitting that he had lied to Parliament about his relationship with Christine Keeler. Macmillan's government never recovered. Jim Thompson, the bishop of Bath and Wells and Profumo's friend, says: 'No one judges Jack Profumo more harshly than he does himself. He says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt shame; and indeed sometimes he has felt that he had little left in life ahead.'
In these days of Squidgy tapes and government ministers bouncing back from sex scandals within weeks, it is difficult to see why Profumo's offence had so grave an impact. He had slept with a girl who lived by sleeping around and he lied to Parliament. But 30 years of retribution? Secrets did not pass to the Russians, despite Keeler's concurrent relationship with the Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov. MI5 appears to have known about the affair and decided there was no security risk. Joe Boyd, executive producer of the film Scandal, on which Christine Keeler advised, believes: 'It is inconceivable that Christine could have asked Profumo about secrets; she was no Mata Hari.' (Even now, in middle age, she seems wildly unreliable spy material. 'Stephen Ward was a major Russian spy and his Communist ways rubbed off on me,' she said rather hysterically last week.)
It is impossible not to feel sorry for Profumo. Peter Hennessy, a fellow trustee of the Attlee Foundation, which has links with Toynbee Hall, sums up the feelings of those who know him now: 'He is one of the nicest and most exemplary people I have met in public or political life; full of the old, decent Tory virtues. I suspect he thinks of Britain as rather like a good regiment, in which everyone knows their place, has their role, but where those at the privileged end basically look after the men and the horses first.'
But if Profumo had the virtues of his officer-class upbringing, he also had the arrogance, the conviction of superiority. And by 1963 the horses and the men were starting to want to look after themselves. The prosecution counsel in Ward's trial referred to Keeler's 'little people,' meaning her family. But little people could no longer automatically and easily be dealt with. Not, anyway, when they had frolicked naked with peers and ministers of the Crown.
Profumo's transgression came when the Tories had been in power so long (11 years) that they thought they were immune. The Establishment did its best to close ranks - the scandal was common gossip for months before the Labour Party finally asked questions in the House; the Daily Pictorial simply sat on a letter written by Profumo to Keeler. There was, Joe Boyd notes, 'an assumption that a gentleman had the right to fuck whom he chose and not have it on the front pages of the newspapers. When that proved not to be the case, it must have seemed to the British Establishment like a vulgarisation of all that they held dear.'
JOHN PROFUMO was born 78 years ago; his father was a barrister, a King's Counsel with a thriving practice, but the serious family money was in insurance. The Profumos were descendants of an aristocratic Italian who had settled in England in 1880, and owned Provident Life Association (they sold in the early Eighties, when the family stake was valued at around pounds 6m). They hunted, played polo and were active in charitable works. Jack was educated at Harrow and Oxford and was MP for Kettering by the time he was 25.
By the end of the Second World War, he was also a colonel and an OBE. He lost his seat in the 1945 Labour landslide, but returned to Parliament (by now a brigadier) as MP for Stratford-upon-Avon in 1950. Two years later he was a junior minister at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation; by 1960 he was married to Valerie Hobson, had a son, and was Secretary of State for War.
Until Profumo met the 19-year-old Christine Keeler, he seemed Foreign Secretary material at least, perhaps a future Prime Minister. Keeler was spending the weekend on the Cliveden estate, at a cottage leased by Ward, an osteopath whose client list included Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Hugh Gaitskell and Frank Sinatra, and who also specialised in friendships with pretty girls of dubious virtue. Up at the big house, the party included Lord Mountbatten, President Ayub Khan of Pakistan, Sir Isaac and Lady Wolfson, the Gulbenkians and the Profumos.
Profumo first saw Keeler swimming naked in the Cliveden pool; when she grabbed a towel, he and Lord Astor tried to relieve her of it. Other guests appeared, and Keeler and Ward were invited back to the big house; Profumo showed her around. The following day there was a wrestling match in the pool, with women on the men's shoulders: Profumo and Keeler were a team.
Keeler left Cliveden at the end of that weekend with Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache and close associate of Ward's. It would have been inconceivable for a war minister not to know that, by convention, 'naval attache' meant 'spy'. And yet, incredibly, Profumo asked Ward for Keeler's telephone number, and called her on the Tuesday, beginning an affair which lasted several months.
Profumo's other act of hubris was to lie to the Commons when Barbara Castle asked what she calls 'that direct question: 'Was it true that the Minister of War was involved with Christine Keeler?' which sent a shudder through the House. Gentlemen don't play it that way.' At the dispatch box the following day, Profumo declared there had been 'no impropriety whatsoever' in his relationship with Miss Keeler.
Profumo survived three months, until apparently, he discovered that Keeler had made a series of tapes detailing their affair. Ivanov had already returned to Moscow, where his career stalled. Keeler married twice, had two sons, and has lived much of her life in a council flat on social security. Ward committed suicide on the night of the judge's summing up at his trial for living off immoral earnings. The trial is now widely held to have been prompted by a need for a scapegoat and to have been based on suspect evidence: Lord Goodman has called Ward 'the historic victim of a historic injustice'.
Jack Profumo, once the charming, self-assured socialite, retreated into obscurity. 'He was a different man. I was shattered by the change in him when I saw him a couple of years later,' Baroness Castle recalls. 'I asked him why he didn't come back to politics, and he shied away like a nervous horse. He had been so perky and dapper.'
His friends have consistently struggled to shield Profumo from prurient public interest. When two books on the affair were published in 1987, Lords Hailsham, Drogheda, Carrington, Goodman and Weinstock, plus Roy Jenkins and James Prior, sent a letter to the Times arguing 'that it is now appropriate to consign this episode to history'; they meant to oblivion. In 1989, Jim Thompson wrote an impassioned article arguing that the film Scandal should not have been made: 'Anyone who knew the facts and understood the emotional background of Jack and Valerie's struggle, and who then decided to plunge them back into their own personal hell, would be sadistic.'
Lord Deedes, the former Daily Telegraph editor (who was both at school and in the 1963 government with Profumo), refused to discuss the matter this week: 'Over the last 30 years he has rowed his way back at Toynbee Hall in style. He is an infinitely superior person to myself, and possibly to yourself. It is an interesting case of personal redemption and I don't wish to talk about it at all.'
With everyone clamming up, it is hard to get a sense of Profumo the man.' We had to tiptoe around his character in the film, because we didn't really know what he was like,' Joe Boyd admits. 'Ian McKellen made a good job of trying to make him seem three-dimensional, but he wasn't written three-dimensionally.'
Profumo has remained married to Valerie and devoted to his family (his son David, a novelist, is married to a television producer and has three children). And he is still at Toynbee Hall most weeks, signing 150 fundraising letters a month. He treads a fine line between exploiting high-profile contacts and staying out of the public eye himself: he has persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carrington, and David Owen to speak at Toynbee lectures; he leads the charity's fundraising effort, which brought in pounds 400,000 last year. He was made a CBE in 1975. He evidently suffers over what happened, and regrets what might have been, but, as Peter Hennessy says: 'Who knows what he feels about it now? He certainly doesn't show his scars. He is worth rediscovering, you know; it has been an exemplary life.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies