Infamous British Political Scandals: The Curious Case of John Stonehouse

MP John Stonehouse faked his own disappearance on a beach.

As BBC America airs the drama State of Play (Wednesdays, 10p/9c), Anglophenia takes a look back at some of Britain’s most explosive real-life political scandals. Here’s our second installment:

Even among British political and spy scandals, John Stonehouse’s story stands out as unusually bizarre. Elected as a Labor MP in 1957, he rose to become a minister in Harold Wilson’s government, but in 1969 came under suspicion of being a spy for Czechoslovakia. Never formally charged, he managed to refute suspicions by those in government at the time, but gradually lost his political popularity.

Stonehouse’s real fame stems from his 1974 staged disappearance to escape a series of failed and fraudulent business dealings and to take up a life with his secret mistress. The MP left a pile of his clothes on a Miami beach to make it appear that he had drowned, but moved to Australia where he joined his lover under the identity of the dead husband of one of his constituents, until he was apprehended a month later.

A psychiatric report at the time concluded: “He began to dislike the personality of Stonehouse and came to believe that his wife, colleagues and friends would be better off without him.”

Stonehouse was extradited to Britain, where he was convicted of fraud, deception and theft and sentenced to seven years in prison. Released after three years because of poor health, he married his former mistress, wrote three novels, appeared on various television shows.

Stonehouse’s deliberate disappearance happened around the same time as the fictional character Reginald Perrin also decided to flee his troubles by running into the sea, so the whole affair helped to give rise to a new phrase: “doing a Reggie Perrin.”

Just last year, new public reports offered a fascinating epilogue to the spying allegations against Stonehouse. It turns out that in 1980 a Czech defector brought new evidence to Margaret Thatcher’s government that Stonehouse had indeed been an agent for Czechoslovakia. The defector alleged that Stonehouse was much more than a passive spy, as had previously been thought: according to minutes of a confidential meeting, Thatcher and her ministers discussed charges that Stonehouse had “provided information about government plans and policies and about technological subjects including aircraft, and had been paid over the years about £5,000 in all.”

Recently rocked by the public revelations that art historian Sir Anthony Blunt had been a Soviet spy for decades, Thatcher and her ministers considered filing charges against Stonehouse but in the end decided against prosecution. MI-5 apparently thought there would be no value in it, and the ministers took the view that the Czech defector had not offered evidence that would stand up in court.

“The balance of argument was against interviewing him and confronting him with the new information,” read the minutes of the confidential meeting, as reported by The Guardian. “Matters should therefore be left as they were.”

Stonehouse died in 1988 at the age of 62.