In 1970 the Labour MP for Morpeth, Will Owen, was charged with being an agent of the StB, Czechoslovakia’s secret service. The man who had named him was Josef Frolik, a Czechoslovak defector, who said Owen was on a £500 monthly retainer organised by Robert Husak, another intelligence officer at the Czechoslovak embassy in London. Owen, Frolik said, had been passing secrets to the Czechoslovaks since 1954. During his trial at the Old Bailey, Owen acknowledged receiving money but denied that he had given away any classified information. He was acquitted. Frolik also named a Labour minister, the postmaster general, John Stonehouse – who, he said, had been recruited in the late 1950s after being compromised by a homosexual honeytrap on a trip to Prague.
Instead of having Stonehouse prosecuted, Harold Wilson asked him to the Number Ten sitting room for a chat. The prime minister wasn’t inclined to believe the accusations. It turned out that Frolik had never actually met Stonehouse, and there was no evidence that Stonehouse was homosexual. In his memoir, Death of an Idealist (1975), Stonehouse said he had been shocked when Wilson confronted him. He admitted having had a number of meetings with Czechoslovak officials, including Husak, who on one occasion appeared uninvited in Stonehouse’s room in a Czechoslovak hotel. But, he maintained, there was nothing untoward in these encounters – and if the Czechoslovaks had been trying to recruit him, they failed. Wilson later told the House of Commons that an inquiry had found no evidence against him. Even so, after Wilson lost the 1970 election, Stonehouse was quietly dropped from the shadow cabinet.
Ten years later, with Thatcher in power, a second Czechoslovak defector said that Stonehouse had been a paid agent from 1962 onwards, and that as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Aviation between 1964 and 1967 he had supplied information on aircraft as well as general government plans and policies. Thatcher was told that Stonehouse had apparently been paid a total of £5000 – close to £100,000 in today’s money. Her attorney general was sure that Stonehouse had been a spy but he lacked evidence admissible in court. Perhaps swayed by the highly embarrassing exposure of Anthony Blunt the year before, Thatcher agreed that Stonehouse shouldn’t be confronted with the new information or prosecuted.
When the StB files were finally opened up in 2008, there were hundreds of pages on Stonehouse, including a five-page report in Stonehouse’s handwriting providing detailed information on members of the African National Congress, an organisation he knew well. There were also typed letters, reports and the minutes of a Labour shadow cabinet meeting on nuclear disarmament in 1963. The Czechoslovak files suggest that Stonehouse was an agent lured by money. In his authorised history of MI5, published in 2009, Christopher Andrew concluded that Stonehouse had indeed spied for the Czechoslovaks, becoming ‘the only British politician (so far as is known) to have acted as a foreign agent while holding ministerial office’.
Julian Hayes, Stonehouse’s great nephew, has also consulted the StB files. He explains that the second defecting StB agent was Karel Pravec, who took over from Husak as Stonehouse’s handler in 1968 but found it increasingly difficult to secure meetings with him. By the late 1960s Stonehouse seemed to think that his seniority in government was making his contact with the Czechoslovaks risky. He had never been an ideologically motivated communist, and the files suggest that the StB felt he was trying to obtain as much money as he could while supplying as little information as possible. ‘We paid him a lot of money and didn’t get anything from him,’ Pravec wrote in one report.
But for some, the StB records don’t settle the matter. Stonehouse’s daughter Julia has seen the same files as Hayes and Andrew and concludes that her father was wrongly accused. Indeed, she thinks the papers show that Stonehouse wasn’t a spy. Even going by her own account of their contents, however, the most she can legitimately claim is that although there are repeated references to his spying, the references might be wrong. Czechoslovak intelligence officers must have made things up about her father in order to impress their superiors and steal money they pretended was for him. She points out that Stonehouse’s file contains a misspelled street name and the wrong house number – how then could messages have been delivered? Hayes answers this by pointing out that the Czechoslovaks were often frustrated that they couldn’t get hold of Stonehouse and the mistake might help explain why. Despite Julia Stonehouse’s book being heavily footnoted and Hayes’s having no references at all, a neutral reading of the two accounts leaves Hayes’s version seeming rather more likely.
Stonehouse’s father was an active trade unionist and his mother was the Labour mayor of Southampton. They enrolled John in the Woodcraft Folk, the ideologically correct version of the Boy Scouts in which children sat around a bonfire singing the Internationale and the Red Flag. To start with, John followed in his parents’ footsteps, joining the Labour Party at the age of sixteen and the Co-operative Movement, where he soon became the youngest member of the Board of Management. It was here that he fought his first political battles. Infuriated by an entrenched Communist Party majority, Stonehouse believed that the Co-op was losing out to emerging supermarkets such as Tesco. His attempts to drag the Co-op into competitiveness were repeatedly blocked by, in his words, ‘evil’ communist opponents. He was elected to the presidency of the London Co-operative Society but the Communist Party elements eventually wore him down, forcing his resignation. After a spell in the RAF during the war, he went to the LSE before spending a couple of years as an anti-colonial activist in Africa. He was elected to Parliament in 1957 at the age of 32, becoming Britain’s youngest MP. He steadily climbed the political ladder and was an increasingly prominent soft-left member of Wilson’s governments.
As he makes clear in Death of an Idealist, being dropped from the shadow cabinet hit Stonehouse hard. But he didn’t take the reversal lying down. He turned his focus to making money, first through a business offering consultancy services for export promotion and then, more controversially, by establishing the British Bangladesh Trust Limited, which he hoped to turn into a bank. The idea began after he helped establish a charity that raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from British Bengalis to help the Bangladeshi independence struggle. Bangladesh’s government, which took office in 1972, was sufficiently grateful to Stonehouse to grant him citizenship. But the bank was problematic. There were regulatory obstacles, and a shortage of cash deposits from British Bengalis. The police started investigating possible fraud, and the pressure on Stonehouse built up. Even though he wasn’t charged, the fraud inquiry made it even harder to raise funds, so Stonehouse started putting in his own money. It was partly to save face: he couldn’t face the embarrassment of the bank collapsing. By 1974, Julia Stonehouse writes, her father was in a ‘dire financial predicament’. There was another source of pressure too: Frolik was about to publish a memoir and Stonehouse must have wondered if he would be named in it.
Stonehouse tried to disappear. His meticulous preparations were modelled in part on Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971): he obtained the birth certificates of two dead constituents and applied for passports and bank accounts in their names, forging reference letters in the name of a terminally ill MP. He even managed to secure the right for one of his fake identities to emigrate to Australia. Taking large amounts of money out of his businesses, he transferred the funds into 27 different accounts. In disguise – new clothes, thick spectacles – he flew to Florida, booked into a hotel and walked into the sea. It later emerged that after swimming parallel to the shoreline he had emerged a little way down the beach before rearranging his hair with a centre parting and heading for the airport, eventually reaching Sydney. As intended, most people, including his wife, thought he had committed suicide, and a ceremonial service was held in the House of Commons.
But despite his best efforts there was a flaw in the plan. Lord Lucan had vanished just two weeks before Stonehouse and people were on the lookout. So when a bank employee on his lunch break noticed a tall, self-assured Englishman going in and out of a number of different banks in central Melbourne, he called the police. They were told by the British authorities that two prominent Englishmen had gone missing and that there was a way of telling them apart: one had a scar on his leg. Stonehouse was detained and the police told him to take down his trousers. They found no scar. Satisfied that they had not apprehended Lord Lucan, the authorities set about establishing Stonehouse’s identity. In the interview, he resorted to bluster, telling anyone who would listen that he was a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council who deserved respect. After unsuccessful bids for asylum in Sweden and Mauritius he was extradited back to the UK, where he recruited a barrister to represent him, the young Geoffrey Robertson. Robertson later recalled that Stonehouse had by this point ‘lost faith in socialism, he’d lost faith in himself, he’d lost faith in the political process … and there was suddenly a loss of belief in all the portentous things he’d done in life.’
He had also grossly mistreated his wife. Julia Stonehouse explains that, after he’d been rumbled in Sydney, he called her mother to say that he was alive after all and that she should join him. Also, could she bring his mistress with her? In Australia, when his wife complained about the mistress, Stonehouse knocked her to the ground, grabbed her by the hair and repeatedly banged her head against the floor. She tried to call for help, so he ripped the phone off the wall and hit her with it. Julia Stonehouse argues that her father’s behaviour can be explained by the stress of being in love with two women at the same time, as well as his addiction to tranquillisers.
Why did he run away? Unsympathetic critics may find it easy to explain. Proud and egotistical, Stonehouse simply wanted to flee from failure and start a new life. He said as much to the Australian police: ‘In order to escape from exceptional political and business pressures which I suffered in England, I wished to establish a new identity and live and work in a more congenial country.’ In an interview with the BBC, he gave a more florid account: ‘Lots of MPs go on fact-finding tours overseas. I have been on a fact-finding tour about myself.’ Later, in a statement to the House of Commons, Stonehouse explained that he’d ‘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’. But as became clear during his trial, which opened on 27 April 1976, when it came to planning his disappearance he had acted rationally and effectively. As Robertson put it, ‘if it were madness, there was too much method in it to ever convince a jury.’ In Death of an Idealist Stonehouse simply blamed others: it was, he said, the hypocrisy of the political and business life of Britain that had caused his breakdown.
Stonehouse was charged with 21 counts of fraud, deception and theft. He decided he didn’t need Robertson and would be better off representing himself. It was a bad decision. His absurd six-day monologue in his own defence irritated the judge and, Robertson believes, contributed to his seven-year sentence. Locked up in Wormwood Scrubs, Stonehouse reluctantly resigned as a member of the Privy Council and – rather belatedly – gave up his seat in Parliament.
After his conviction, Stonehouse tried to make a living through writing. He had brought out his first book before his ministerial career took off: Prohibited Immigrant (1960) recounted his anti-colonial campaigning in Africa. Now behind bars, he started writing about himself again. Both Death of an Idealist and the excruciatingly boring My Trial were self-pitying attempts to clear his name. ‘I was innocent,’ he wrote in memoir number two. ‘But in my heart, I felt that if the people of England really needed to express their orchestrated venom on me then perhaps I could still perform some service in accepting the role of sacrificial lamb.’ Next came four spy thrillers. According to one of his publishers, John Calder, Stonehouse was convinced they would be bestsellers. They weren’t – probably because they were written in the style of the boys’ own adventures he had read as a child. ‘As the gypsy dancing girls regrouped for another seemingly spontaneous demonstration of native energy,’ Stonehouse wrote in Oil on the Rift (1987), ‘he mused on the vagaries of fate.’ In The Ultimate (1976), written under the pen name James Lund, Stonehouse described an IRA mortar attack on a cabinet meeting at Number Ten. The similarities between his story and what actually happened in February 1991 when John Major’s cabinet was nearly blown up by a mortar fired from a vehicle in Whitehall are so uncanny that one can’t help wondering if someone in the IRA had read The Ultimate and taken the idea from there. Two other thrillers, Ralph (1982) and The Baring Fault (1986), published under his own name, dealt with a tricky topic for Stonehouse: both are stories about British politicians spying for the Soviet bloc, one of them initially compromised by a honeytrap.
After his early release from prison in 1979, Stonehouse remained in the public eye, appearing on radio and TV to talk about his story. He tried to stay politically relevant, joining the newly created SDP, but was never taken seriously again. His political career, books and businesses hadn’t amounted to much. Even if he was a spy, he wasn’t a significant one. As for his political legacy, his obituarists had nothing weightier to work with than his introduction, as postmaster general, of the second-class stamp. Until the end, he was still sending House of Commons Christmas cards to friends, as if hankering after past glories. On 25 March 1988 Stonehouse collapsed in Birmingham before he was due to appear on a TV show about missing people. He died three weeks later. For both Julian Hayes and Julia Stonehouse, his story is a matter of intense interest. For the rest of us he is little more than a trivia question: ‘Which British MP faked his own death on a Florida beach?’