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Great Political Sex Scandals: The Profumo Affair

Updated on July 26, 2013

If there’s one thing British politicians seem to excel at, it’s sex scandals. Most MPs, or Members of Parliament, do their utmost to portray themselves as upstanding members of the community, happily married with a strong sense of family values. Invariably, the ones who shout the loudest get caught engaging in kinky sex with dubious characters of a Tuesday evening, and leave their jobs in disgrace.

The Profumo Affair, as it became known, just involved good old-fashioned heterosexual sex and a bit of spying, but it was one of Britain’s biggest, and certainly most gripping of scandals, resulting in a suicide, a resignation and, ultimately, the fall of the British government. It’s been the inspiration for books, songs and a successful movie. Named after its protagonist, John Profumo, it dates back to 1961, against the backdrop of the Cold War between Russia and the West, when Britain lived in fear of a Soviet nuclear attack.

John Profumo
John Profumo | Source

Who Was Involved?

John Profumo was Secretary of State for War, working under the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. He went to Harrow and Oxford, and had formerly climbed the ranks of the British army to Brigadier. He became an MP in 1940, and steadily rose up in the Conservative party to his appointment as Secretary of State for War in 1960. In 1954 he married the actress Valerie Hobson, and in 1955 they had a son.

Stephen Ward was a public-school-educated son of a clergyman who became a celebrated osteopath, whose clients included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Lord Astor, who let him use a cottage at Cliveden House, his Buckinghamshire pile. A naturally charming man with impeccable social skills, he loved mixing in high society. His marriage to a model in 1949 lasted just six weeks, but he adored and surrounded himself with beautiful young women, usually from the lower classes, whom he would introduce to his establishment friends.

Christine Keeler was just nineteen years old at the start of the story. A naturally beautiful girl, she was working as a model and cabaret showgirl when she met Stephen Ward. He began grooming and mentoring her, and introducing her to his establishment friends.

Cliveden House - where it all began
Cliveden House - where it all began

How did it all start?

Typically, it’s not necessarily the actions that are so terrible, it’s the denial and/or cover-up that counts. In July 1961, at a party held at Stephen Ward’s cottage at Cliveden House, John Profumo met the party-girl Christine Keeler, just nineteen, who was allegedly swimming naked in the pool at the time. She was beautiful, with long legs and glorious chestnut hair, and Profumo couldn’t resist her. They had an affair, either meeting Stephen Ward’s flat or in Profumo’s own house, both in London. The affair only lasted about a month – Profumo ended it in a letter – but it was to have a profound effect upon both their lives.

Christine's Dodgy Friends

Unfortunately for Profumo, Christine Keeler kept some pretty dodgy company. He had no idea that not only was she already sleeping with a drug dealer, Johnny Edgecombe, she was also sleeping with a Russian spy called Yevgeny Ivanov, outwardly a senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, clearly this had hugely compromising implications for the British Secretary of State for War. It could have all been kept quiet but for dodgy Johnny, who, in a fit of rage one evening in December 1962, fired a number of shots at the door where Keeler was staying. And she just happened to be staying with Stephen Ward, her mentor, along with another girl, Mandy Rice-Davies. Edgecombe stood trial for attempted murder, and this was the event that brought the girls’ involvement with high society to the press’s attention. Reporters soon learned of Christine’s affairs with Profumo and Ivanov, and the scandal broke.

The Denial

In March 1963 John Profumo told the House of Commons that there had been ‘no impropriety whatsoever’ and threatened to issue writs for libel and slander if the allegations continued. His statement did not prevent newspapers from publishing stories about Keeler, however, and it soon became clear that his position was untenable. Although it was never proven that his relationship with Keeler had led to any breach of national security, on 5th June 1963, Profumo was forced to admit that he had lied to the House, an unforgivable offence in British politics, and he resigned. The scandal rocked the Conservative government, which was defeated by the Labour party in 1964.

Mandy Rice-Davies, left, with Christine Keeler
Mandy Rice-Davies, left, with Christine Keeler | Source

He would, wouldn't he?

This quote has become part of the British vernacular. Stephen Ward was arrested for ‘living wholly or in part on the earning of prostitution’. During his trial, the prosecutor told Mandy Rice-Davies that Lord Astor denied ever having met her, let alone having an affair with her. She replied, to laughter throughout the public gallery, ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’

Songs and Films

This scandal captured the public’s imagination, and as a result has inspired numerous songs, such as High Heels in High Places by Adam Ant, Nothing has been Proved and In Private, both written by The Pet Shop Boys and sung by Dusty Springfield.

Most notably it provided the plot and characters for the 1989 film Scandal, starring Joanne Whalley as Christine, Bridget Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies, John Hurt as Stephen Ward and Ian McKellen as John Profumo.

Scandal 1989

Where Are They Now?

Stephen Ward took an overdose of sleeping pills on the last day of his trial. He fell into a coma and died in hospital days later. As Profumo’s career floundered, Keeler became something of a celebrity, posing for an iconic portrait naked on a plywood chair.

Once the dust settled, John Profumo and his wife, who had stood by him all the time, devoted the rest of their lives to charity work, helping out in the impoverished East End of London. In 1975 he was awarded a CBE for this charity work, and his attendance at the late Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday dinner in 1995, where he was seated next to the Queen, no less, heralded his return to respectability. His wife died in 1998, and Profumo died in 2006 of a stroke.

Christine Keeler, now in her seventies, has written several books, most recently Secrets and Lies, with the journalist Douglas Thompson, in which she alleges thatStephen Ward was, in fact, a spy working with Ivanov to send military secrets to Russia, and that he’d set her up with Ivanov in order to blame her if word ever got out. In a 2012 interview with the British newspaper The Daily Mail, in which she was portrayed as a fairly lonely woman, estranged from her family and living with cats (though I fail to see what’s wrong with that?), she admitted that she’d never even enjoyed the sex.

Can sex and politics ever mix? Viva Jones’ satirical series, The Sexual Misadventures of Primmie Darling, is available at Amazon Kindle.


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    • Viva Jones profile image

      Viva Jones 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Nuffsaidstan, that's funny! I gather Mandy has done pretty well for herself since it all, married a wealthy Israeli businessman or something. Thanks for commenting.

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 4 years ago

      I was in a quiz in a local pub a few years ago and the question was asked name the girls involved in the Profumo Affair, there came a lot of laughing and giggling from the table behind us, i found out later they were laughing because Mandy Rice Davies father was on their team!