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John Stonehouse was a politician who had it all. He was tall, good looking, clever, fiercely ambitious and an energetic campaigner for his causes with a high capacity for turning on the charm. Being a former RAF pilot and the son of a Labour mayor of Southampton helped lubricate his ascent in the party. After serving as junior minister of aviation and minister of state for technology, a hot topic during Harold Wilson’s first period as prime minister, he rose to the cabinet as postmaster general and then minister of posts and telecommunications. Such was his dazzle that some tipped the West Midlands MP as a future occupant of Number 10.
Trouble was he was also a liar, a cheat and a fraud.
On 20 November 1974, while booked in at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami, he told a business colleague that he was going for a late afternoon swim. After stopping by the beach cabana to deposit his clothes with the attendant, he went into the sea. And didn’t come back. When it was noticed that Stonehouse hadn’t collected his belongings, it appeared that he had vanished from the face of the Earth.
When the news reached them, his distraught wife, Barbara, and horrified family, knowing him to be a strong swimmer, thought he might have had a heart attack or been taken by sharks. Other ideas were soon in feverish circulation at Westminster and in the media. Exiled to the backbenches during Wilson’s second period in government, clouds of suspicion had been gathering around Stonehouse over both his financial dealings and his relationship with the Soviet bloc. Some conjectured that he had been the victim of a mafia hit, while others speculated that he had been smuggled to communist Cuba on a Russian submarine.
The truth was only slightly less sensational. He had faked his death by leaving the sea along the coast and changing into dry clothes, which he had covertly deposited at another hotel. He then made his way to Australia using one of two false identities stolen from the dead husbands of constituents. This idea seems to have been inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling thriller, The Day of the Jackal, in which the assassin travels on a series of phoney passports.
As part of the elaborate pre-planning of his disappearance, Stonehouse had siphoned money into bank accounts in the names of his false identities. This was his undoing. A well-spoken Englishman transferring bags of cash between banks in Melbourne was brought to the attention of the Australian police, who initially thought they might have stumbled across Lord Lucan, who had also gone missing recently. Once Stonehouse had been correctly identified as a runaway member of parliament, there followed six months of legal and political wrangling before he was finally returned to Britain. It was incontestable that he had faked his own death, but he was still holding on to the title of MP 20 months later. Even as a trial at the Old Bailey loomed, he carried on tabling questions to ministers and walking through the division lobbies to vote. This extraordinary dimension of the affair included him delivering one of the most remarkable personal statements ever heard in the Commons in which he blamed his attempt to disappear on a mental breakdown: “I assumed a new parallel personality that took over from me, which was foreign to me and which despised the humbug and shame of the past years of my public life.” In an earlier intervention, he had claimed: “Lots of MPs go on fact-finding tours overseas. I have been on a fact-finding tour about myself.”
All this was hideously uncomfortable for a Labour government tottering on a tiny majority. Stonehouse compounded the embarrassment by defiantly turning up at the 1975 party conference in Blackpool, where he sat in seat G30 surrounded by empty chairs. The only person who spoke to him was Mary Wilson, the prime minister’s kindly wife. By now, it had been revealed that Stonehouse, a serial philanderer, was in a long-term affair with his secretary, Sheila Buckley, who was 21 years younger. It transpired that they had met up in Copenhagen during the period when he was supposedly dead, a reckless act by him and an encounter with bad consequences for her. The prosecuting authorities became convinced that she had been an accomplice in his complex conspiracy to deceive. The trial judge concluded that she was more like his puppet and spared her jail. Stonehouse finally resigned as an MP from prison after he was jailed on several counts of deception and fraud.
As the lurid details came out in instalments, Westminster, the media and the public were agape. Money, sex, politics and the suggestion of espionage. This scandal had it all. Even for the strange 1970s, this stands out as one of the most surreal episodes of that turbulent decade.
The daughter contends that the accusation that he was a traitor to his country is the worst calumny heaped on her father
These rival accounts are both by relatives. Julia Stonehouse is his daughter, Julian Hayes is the son of his nephew. The latter, a criminal lawyer, mounts the case for the prosecution. This is that Stonehouse was an avaricious chancer who faked his death in a last-throw attempt to escape a series of failed and fraudulent business dealings in which he had entangled innocent friends and relatives, including the author’s father. While posing “as if he were the innocent victim of the entire, bizarre spectacle”, Stonehouse was a “callous” man who brought “a tidal wave of distress, anguish and ruin crashing down on his extended family, not only Barbara and their children, but also dragging his nephew, Michael, and his young family under with them”.
The daughter, who has worked as a ghostwriter for 30 years, offers us the case for the defence. She argues that her late father was the victim of vicious and inaccurate newspapers, disloyal colleagues, rightwingers seeking to discredit the Wilson government and rogue elements in the British secret services. Financial pressures and the stress of knowing that he was suspected of being a spy were accompanied by the excessive use of prescription drugs. This combination drove him to do “absolutely mad, out-of-character things” and commit a form of “psychological suicide” when he attempted to disappear.
The biggest point of difference between them is whether Stonehouse was, as many have since concluded, an agent for the eastern bloc. During the cold war, there was a concerted effort by the Kremlin and its Warsaw Pact allies to recruit MPs and trade unionists as sources of information and agents of influence. The Czech intelligence organisation, the StB, was regarded as better at it than the KGB. The Labour MP Will Owen was put on trial where he admitted to taking money from the Czechs before being acquitted because it could not be proved that he had given them anything that amounted to official secrets. Hayes isn’t in doubt that Stonehouse took money from the StB, “advancing him in excess of £5,000 (equivalent to over £76,000 today)”. They gave him a variety of codenames, the last being Twister, which is suggestive of their growing disappointment with his performance. The StB file on him, which became available for scrutiny after the end of the cold war, contains a litany of complaints that he became elusive and uncooperative, especially after suspicion fell on Owen. Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5, delivers the damning verdict that Stonehouse is “the only British politician (so far as is known) to have acted as a foreign agent while holding ministerial office”.
The daughter contends that the accusation that he was a traitor to his country is the worst calumny heaped on her father. She makes the fair point that Czech agents in London were “professional liars” and incentivised to exaggerate their successes to their masters to justify their existence and their expenses. As for Czech intelligence officers who named him as a spy after they defected to the west, she argues that their word is not to be trusted either. She’s also studied the Stonehouse file from the StB archive and says she finds in it nothing to prove that he either took cash from them or provided any information that wasn’t readily available in the public domain. If you haven’t studied all the evidence first hand, as I haven’t, it is not possible to properly judge who is right, but she makes that part of her case with vigour.
Even a daughter trying to rehabilitate the reputation of her father can’t entirely escape acknowledgment of monstrous behaviour. After his arrest in Australia, both his wife and his lover joined him there. He rowed with Barbara about his desire to carry on with both her and Sheila. “There was a silence and then my father lost control. He grabbed my mother and threw her to the floor, yelling, ‘Why can’t you understand?’ My mother was face-down on the floor and my father leant down, grabbed her hair, and used it to bang her head up and down on the floor.”
Barbara divorced him. Released from prison after three years, he married Sheila, had a son with her, wrote some novels and appeared on various TV shows. A heart attack, one of several that began during his time in prison, took his life at the age of 62.
His daughter over-protests her case when she claims he was “killed by human cruelty” and expresses a wish that he had got away with his disappearance. I can’t agree. Even if he was not a traitor to his country, Stonehouse was most definitely a serial betrayer.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer
• John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP by Julia Stonehouse is published by Icon (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy by Julian Hayes is published by Robinson (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply