Reporting political sex scandals, 50 years on from the Profumo Affair

Christine Keeler photographed in 1963. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

There has got to be something special about a news story to push it onto a front page.

Sometimes it’s grief. Or scandal. At other times it’s a significant event. Or a terrible crime.

In 1963, one news story had just about everything: sex, politics, deceit, espionage, criminality, suicide, high society and an extra-marital affair.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the resignation of the Conservative War Minister John Profumo – the culmination of a series of revelations that we now call the Profumo Affair.

But this wasn’t just any old political scandal.

It is, in many ways, the political scandal of recent British history.

It gripped the country and had tabloid newspapers fizzing with gossip, not least because it linked a world of sex parties and prostitution with the previously untouchable elite of British society.

In Westminster and in Fleet Street, the talk was about little else for six months. By 1963, the Conservatives had been in power for 12 years. The Daily Mirror asked: “What the hell is going on in this country?” Even the broadsheets condemned the “moral collapse” of the Tories.

It was a time when the Cold War was at its most tense (the Cuban Missile Crisis had just been averted in October 1962) and the United States looked on in disbelief: a rising star of the British government had a mistress who was also sleeping with a Russian spy. Profumo became an international, as well as a national, scandal.

A scandal on which two films (The Keeler Affair in 1964 and Scandal in 1989) have been based (the first was banned from British cinema screens) and many books have been written.

John Profumo met 20-year-old dancer and model Christine Keeler in 1961. He was staying at Cliveden House, the Berkshire country estate of a friend, Dr Stephen Ward, a London osteopath. She was having a party at a cottage in the grounds. When the married politician first saw the young model, 27 years his junior, she was climbing naked out of a swimming pool.

Rumours of the affair which followed did reach the press. Stories were written. But when it was discovered the mistress of the war minister was also sharing a bed with Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov, the scandal reached new heights in Cold War Britain.

Profumo then lied to Parliament. In March 1963, he told MPs there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Ms Keeler. The press gossip didn’t stop. Labour leader Harold Wilson smelled blood. Less than three months later, John Profumo admitted his deception and resigned.

Dr Stephen Ward pictured in 1963. Credit: General/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

To understand the significance of the events which led up to the resignation in June 1963 is to appreciate the cultural and political change it had on Britain.

The country was gripped by the story because Britain was also gripped by a social revolution. The Sixties were swinging. The ruling classes were not. But now, for the first time, people had in their tabloid newspapers a view through the bedroom window of the establishment. The old order was giving way to a new, more liberal society – a process in which the hungry press was a very willing participant.

Previously, editors had been largely respectful of the ruling elite. Now they were happy to uncover their misdemeanours.

For the first time newspaper readers were given a tantalising glimpse of the double lives led by those they had hitherto respected. Never before had mistresses and ministers been written about in the same story.

The Moral Code

Half a century later, sex can still bring down a politician. Affairs do still end political careers.

Governments have been forced from office – not just because of policy and politics – but because of the moral code of the ministers within it.

The case of the former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne is perhaps the most recent example of how an affair can be spectacularly damaging.

But in this case it was not the affair itself which ended his career – he had admitted to that many months earlier – it was an act of revenge.

When Vicky Pryce first told newspapers in 2011 that her adulterous husband had forced her to take his speeding points in 2003, many of us in the Westminster reporting circuit predicted that Huhne’s past was about to catch up with him.

Few of us, however, thought it would end the way it did – with both husband and wife being sent to jail in March for perverting the course of justice.

In between Profumo and Huhne, there are many tales of politicians and sex. Some stories explode onto the front pages of a Sunday newspaper. In others, the accused decides to issue a mea culpa before it’s announced for them.

How you approach a story of an affair depends on the allegations and the way in which they are made.

Public admission of guilt: report it. Allegations in the press: tread more carefully. It’s also the moment to apply the “public interest test”. Claims that a Cabinet minister perverted the course of justice instantly pass that test. Claims that a footballer cheated on his girlfriend do not.

Setting a precedent

Cecil Parkinson, Paddy Ashdown and John Prescott all had affairs with their secretaries. Remarkably, Ashdown (who earned the nickname Paddy Pantsdown) and Prescott both managed to stay in their high profile jobs. Parkinson, however, resigned.

In 2004, Boris Johnson was sacked from the Conservative front bench for lying about his affair with Petronella Wyatt (more accurately he had called the stories an “inverted pyramid of piffle”). There have been stories of other affairs too.

That didn’t stop him, in later years, being elected London Mayor. Twice.

Sex and expenses combined in a damaging way for Jacqui Smith, the former home secretary. Her husband, on her staff payroll, watched adult films and then claimed for them on parliamentary expenses.

Even the famously grey John Major admitted he’d started a four-year fling with Edwina Currie in 1984 – although this was only discovered in 2002, when Currie serialised her diaries.

John Major admitted he’d started a four-year fling with Edwina Currie in 1984. Credit: Press Association

What made the sexual diversions of John Major’s ministers such big news in the early Nineties was the contradiction with his government’s proclamation that it was time to get “Back to Basics” – a drive to return to family values and to recognise the importance of stable marriage.

Yet Heritage Minister David Mellor’s family values didn’t seem to be very important to him when news leaked of his affair with a 30-year-old actress, Antonia de Sancha.

The toe-sucking and the sex-in-a-Chelsea strip made for good copy but De Sancha later claimed that those details were made up by her publicist Max Clifford.

“It was the first of many nails in John Major’s coffin,” says David Wooding, the associate political editor of The Sun, who worked for the paper in 1992 on what he calls the “bombshell” story of David Mellor.

“The affair was just the start of the shambles which eventually led to the fall of the Major government,” he says.

“This was not just prurience on the part of the newspapers. These ministers were preaching morality through the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign while getting up to all sorts of shenanigans in their private lives.”

David Mellor resigned in 1992 after details of his affair were made public. Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

David Mellor resigned in September 1992 – two months after his affair was first revealed. Sleaze had stuck to the Major administration and it was becoming corrosive.

“My view was that lawmakers cannot be lawbreakers,” said Michael Brown about his resignation from the same government in 1994.

Brown was a government whip. The fact he was gay was an “open secret” among his colleagues and the Parliamentary press. He’d been on holiday to Barbados with a man who – at 20 – was still under the gay age of consent at the time (which was 21).

Pictures found their way to the News Of The World and, says Brown, “John Major needed me like he needed a hole in the head. We’d had David Mellor 18 months before. I could not morally continue.”

A Politician's Life

There is something about the job of a politician which has for decades – even centuries – encouraged them to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the desires of the bedroom.

A perfect point to remind ourselves of Bill Clinton, whose “sexual relations with that woman” Monica Lewinsky made him only the second US president ever to be impeached.

Former US President Bill Clinton pictured in 1998.

So what is it that leads a politician astray in the bedroom? Perhaps it’s the inherent need to take risks, the ability to network, the hours spent in the office away from family.

Whatever it is, it does not always bring about a dramatic fall from office. But as both John Profumo and Chris Huhne experienced – half a century apart – a lie uncovered will almost always mean a career ended.

A few months after John Profumo resigned, Harold Macmillan decided he could no longer continue as Prime Minister. He cited ill health but – while political historians disagree over how much his resignation was down to John Profumo and Christine Keeler – the country had been gripped by its first major sex scandal under his watch.

Dr Ward, who introduced the pair at that country estate, later committed suicide. It was the exact point at which our trust in politicians started to drain away.

I have reported on the activities of Westminster politicians under the last three governments. There were affairs or sex scandals in each. But the Profumo affair remains the sex scandal against which all subsequent ones are measured.