Ask anyone today who it was in the 1970s who left his clothes on a beach and wandered into the sea in search of a new life, and the answer would probably be Reginald Perrin, not John Stonehouse.
Yet the enduring comedy of Reggie’s fictional crack-up, in the classic BBC sitcom, has a matching drama in the real story of the missing MP, a posse of Czechoslovak spies and the mysterious trail he left behind.
Stonehouse was a young star in Harold Wilson’s first Labour government of 1964, apparently heading for high office.
But within a few years he was interrogated by MI5 on suspicion of espionage, sank into financial ruin as his political career fell apart, and ended up faking his own death in Miami in 1974 in a desperate effort to create a new life. A rise and fall of epic proportions.
Now, by coincidence, two books by members of his own family tell the story in radically different ways.
John Stonehouse, My Father, by his daughter Julia, paints a sympathetic picture of a wronged man, broken by his public disgrace.
Stonehouse, by the barrister Julian Hayes – a relation through the author’s father, who was the MP’s nephew and his lawyer – concludes that he was indeed a spy (though not a particularly useful one to the Czechs) and knew for certain from the start that he was the author of his own misfortunes.
Where does the truth lie?
Bulging files now available in Prague reveal that for more than 10 years Stonehouse had regular meetings with “diplomats” from the Czech Embassy in London – all of them intelligence operatives – when, at the height of the Cold War, such relations were fraught with danger.
The Czechs claimed to have paid him a total of about £5,000 – well over double an MP’s salary at the time – but his daughter Julia claims that none of it reached him.
She says that proper contacts with the embassy – his ministerial duties at one stage involved trying to sell commercial aircraft to the Czechs – were cooked up into a conspiratorial relationship that may have been naive, but not criminal.
Julian Hayes doesn’t buy her story.
“He knew exactly what he was dealing with,” Hayes told me.
To which Julia Stonehouse says: “I’m laying down the gauntlet here. Where’s the evidence that he gave them any secrets?”
She can point to the documented frustration in the Czech intelligence agency, the StB, that they weren’t getting much for their money, and insists that her father did nothing wrong.
But there was an alarm bell ringing in Whitehall.
By the end of the 1960s, the minister – he was the last to hold the office of postmaster general, in which role he introduced the system of first and second-class stamps – was sinking into a miasma of suspicion.
He flatly denied to MI5, who’d been alerted by a defector to the identity of their “Agent Kolon”, that he’d done anything wrong.
Although the suspicion didn’t become public, his political rise was over.
In opposition after 1970 he was sidelined by Wilson, and then embarked, in a sign of desperation, on a series of financial manoeuvres that promised disaster from the start.
By 1974, with his personal life also upended by an affair with his secretary, he was panicked enough to flee to Miami, there to stage his crude suicide caper and head to Australia under an assumed name.
The denouement was comic.
Alerted to the odd behaviour of an Englishman who was visiting banks across Melbourne and making suspicious transactions, the police interviewed him and asked a question that must have seemed appropriate at the time.
Was he the fugitive peer who was wanted for the murder of his nanny in London, Lord Lucan?
Since he didn’t have the long scar on his thigh that was known to be Lucan’s giveaway mark, Stonehouse survived the accusation.
But when the police then put it to him that he must therefore be that other missing Englishman, the MP whose Miami “suicide” had convinced no one, he folded and confessed.
Back home, soon declared bankrupt, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to seven years after a trial in which he conducted his own defence. By the end of the decade, he was freed on account of his good behaviour but he was a broken man.
‘Let matters lie’
Whitehall papers show that after another Czech defector’s claims about him, the Thatcher government concluded that he probably had been a spy, but decided that there was no clinching evidence that would convince a jury.
The government was still stung by the naming of Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy the year before, and was relieved to close the file on Stonehouse and, as the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong put it in typically lapidary style, “let matters lie”.
Now, in these two books, the story has come back to life – though readers are bound to come to different conclusions about where the truth might lie.
On one matter, however, the two authors come to an unlikely agreement.
Julian Hayes says: “It keeps being repeated. Nobody learns the lesson.”
Get too close to the fire and you will be burned.
And Julia Stonehouse, fiercely defensive of her father’s character and intentions, says the lasting effect of the spying allegations is a warning to anyone in public life, as relevant now as it was in the fevered days of the Cold War.
“Don’t even think about going to Russia, or learning Russian, or China, or learning Chinese, because if you do meet people from other places they’ll call you a spy, or your side they’ll call you a spy. Watch out.
“And if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, make sure you pay your bills before you go.”
Anyone revisiting the Stonehouse story, whatever they take from it, will understand the force of those words.