We live with politicians afflicted by accusations of bullying, financial shenanigans, sexual improprieties and ministerial incompetence. What happened in the past to MPs tarnished by scandal?
Mature residents and students of the recent 20th century history of the Kent constituency once known as Bromley will recall the defeat of their most famous MP in 1963, the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who led a government constantly fraught with difficulties. At the end, his government was tarnished by the scandal involving John Profumo MP and Christine Keeler. The following comments on this affair may be fitting on its the sixtieth anniversary.
Christine Keeler affair
We (my co-producer partner and wife, Lila Creswell) got to know Christine Keeler some years ago when making a TV programme (‘Notes & Queries with Clive Anderson’) for BBC2, based on, and adapted from The Guardian’s popular forum for questions to which there were no absolute answers, sanctioned by the then venerable editor Alan Rusbridger.
One ‘query’ which fascinated us was “Should sexual indiscretion by politicians lead to the downfall of government?” So, we assembled a couple of guests to debate this with Clive: the former Times Newspapers editor, Andrew Neil, and the noted author of the darkly comedic novel ‘House of Cards’, Michael Dobbs. But, to add some greater poignancy and perspective, we thought it would be valuable to get some insight from a victim of political intrigue and hit on the idea of inviting Christine Keeler to take part.
Christine and Andrew Neil
That took some fixing: Lila meeting her several times in her decrepit South London flat, with one of her charming sons giving Christine moral support, and eventually persuading her to put the record straight from her point of view. Christine, who was charming and very intelligent, although very shy, insisted on being paid a fee in cash – fair enough – and a make-over which we were happy for her to have as she was still a very attractive woman and merited being seen at her best. Her only condition was that, on learning that Andrew Neil was to be a guest, she should never occupy the same space as him on recording day at the BBC’s TV Centre in White City. So, we arranged to give her a private ‘Green Room’ until her call to the studio.
On recording day, we put the call out for Christine to come to the studio, but she was not to be found in her private ‘Green Room’. Nor was Andrew Neil. They were found eventually in yet another room, sharing snacks and gin and tonics and chatting away happily!
I did not have sexual relations with that woman
In another small twist, a guest in the audience was Lila’s cousin, Peter Rawlinson QC, formerly MP for the Surrey constituency of Epsom and Ewell (later Lord Rawlinson of Ewell) who was Solicitor General in Macmillan’s cabinet and a key part of the small group of MPs who heard Profumo’s dishonest protestations of innocence in having an affair with Christine. A performance echoed by President Bill Clinton much later, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” When Peter heard that Christine was to appear on our programme, he insisted on coming to the recording to see her for real as he had never met her.
Christine’s account was mesmerising. We were all, even our vocal presenter, briefly dumbstruck by her dignified demeanour and how she told her story.
Many were crushed, even destroyed, by the scandal, not least Christine herself who was ill-equipped to handle the press harassment. The society physiotherapist Stephen Ward, who introduced her to John Profumo at Cliveden, eventually committed suicide.
John Profumo resigned as an MP and spent the rest of his life working tirelessly for charities, starting out at Toynbee Hall, then a centre for many organisations in the East End of London at a time of great change (new apartments in skyscrapers having replaced bomb-damaged streets, docks being relocated eastwards, meths drinkers who were former motorway construction workers, Bangladeshi families replacing Jews as majority immigrant group etc).
In contrast, not much charity was extended to Christine who spent the rest of her life broken and sometimes living in poverty. She was a delightful, but crushed and broken flower. Had this happened to her now, she might have done a ‘Hancock’ and signed up for big money to feature on ‘I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here’ and all its consequent appearance fees, features and everything that goes with either notoriety or celebrity.
Food for thought
So, wherever geographically it may arise, in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, political misdemeanours need cautious scrutiny, because they have human consequences on those directly involved. Food for thought, not least for the MP for Esher and Walton, Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who has just resigned because of an ongoing investigation into alleged bullying behaviour. Food for thought for Surrey voters, what with local elections coming up and a General Election not far over the horizon.