Julia Stonehouse forgives her father for disappearing in 1974, but she’s angry that historians believe the MP was a Cold War traitor, she tells Etan Smallman in her first interview
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On 20 November 1974, the Labour MP John Stonehouse – once tipped as a future prime minister – rolled his clothes into a neat bundle, left them on the beach in Miami, went for a swim, and vanished. In the words of his wife: “All the evidence that we’ve had points to the fact he was drowned.” Obituaries were prepared by newspapers and his apparent death was widely thought to have been suicide.
On 24 December, he was arrested in Australia – by police who initially mistook him for Lord Lucan, the aristocrat who had gone missing 12 days before Stonehouse did, after allegedly murdering his children’s nanny.
Stonehouse, 49 at the time, who was mired in debt and addicted to prescription drugs, had been inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal. He stole the identity of a dead constituent, Joseph Markham, to get a passport in his name and intended to begin a new life in Melbourne.
After returning to the UK, he resumed his duties as MP for Walsall North. But for Stonehouse, who was in the midst of a mental breakdown, this was the start of years of legal wrangling that would ultimately see him convicted in 1976 for various counts of theft, fraud and deception and sentenced to 95½ years in prison (though in reality the figure was seven, as the terms would run concurrently; he would serve just three).
An MP faking their own death would always be a sensational story. But the popularity of the sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – adapted from a book published in 1975 that entirely coincidentally depicted a middle-aged, middle-class, middle manager who fools people into thinking he has killed himself after leaving his clothes on a beach – cemented Stonehouse in folklore as the MP who “did a Reggie Perrin”.
His resignation from Parliament also had political implications. It led to a by-election that was won by the Conservatives, putting further pressure on the struggling minority Labour government.
During his time in Wormwood Scrubs and Blundeston prisons, he suffered a series of heart attacks and underwent open-heart surgery. Nine years after his release – in which time he had taken up writing thrillers of his own – he died aged 62.
His name has become synonymous with a very British kind of scandal and farce, and he joined the pantheon of 1960s and 70s political villains that included John Profumo and Jeremy Thorpe.
For his daughter, Julia Stonehouse, the reality was a cruel miscarriage of justice, fuelled by what she calls the “miasma of suspicion and contempt” that saw him accused of being everything from a Mafia collaborator to a Czech spy.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever said a good word about my father,” she tells i on a video call from her home in Wiltshire, her very first interview in the 47 years since Stonehouse’s astonishing disappearance.
A professional ghostwriter, she has broken her long silence on the subject with a book of her own – John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP, a meticulous attempt to exonerate him of the worst charges. She had spent at least a decade resisting the urge to put pen to paper; her mother, Barbara, now 90, “didn’t want us to bring all hell down upon us”. But, says Julia, “I’m 70 now, you know I won’t be around that much longer myself.”
The trigger was a new wave of what she sees as distorted versions of events, peddled via You- Tube and podcasts. She says she has “not seen a single book, article, web page or post that’s not riddled with inaccuracies”.
The spying ‘smear’
The myth she would most like to debunk is the one – now enshrined in history books – that her “handsome, generous and brilliant” father was a communist spy. Josef Frolík, a defector from the Czech secret services, first levelled the charge in 1969.
According to Julia, “right-wing elements within MI5” made sure the rumour was spread to the press and politicians. In The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5, Professor Christopher Andrew describes Stonehouse as “the only British politician (so far as is known) to have acted as a foreign agent while holding ministerial office”.
In 2010, classified government papers were released showing that in 1980 Margaret Thatcher’s attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, told the then prime minister that “he was sure that Mr Stonehouse had been a spy for the Czechoslovaks but he had no evidence which he could put before the jury”.
Sir Michael added that if Stonehouse was confronted, “it was quite likely he would make a public fuss and claim that he was being persecuted by the government”. As the Czech defector had also not provided any evidence to back up his claim, he said, they should let the matter rest.
Julia is baffled as to why everyone relied on the word of Frolík and his colleagues. “These were some of the most dangerous people in the world – devious killers.” She says agents in the Czech embassy exaggerated access to senior contacts in the UK to please their bosses and, when they risked being brought home, invented intelligence in exchange for a comfortable life in the West.
Although they were supposed to be arranging secret rendezvous with Stonehouse by dropping off coded cuttings from The Times, all along his file contained a misspelled street name and the wrong house number. After the publication of the MI5 history,
Julia sent the security service a 50-page dossier, to no avail. Professor Andrew did not reply to i’s request for comment.
“I’m dealing with a whole world that won’t admit they’re wrong,” she says. When I ask whether anyone has admitted to a misreading of events, she raises her voice for emphasis: “Nobody’s ever apologised,
Etan. You’ve got to grasp this, mate. Nobody ever apologises!”
It was the spy allegation – made during an era of threatened nuclear war – that proved fatal because, as Julia writes, “that was a smear that couldn’t be wiped off”. She adds: “The very accusation of being a spy allows people to dump other unfounded allegations at your feet.”
The other fundamental oversight, she argues, is the role played by the “mind-twisting” drugs – Mogadon and Mandrax, since banned in the UK – that her father had been taking for years, prescribed by an array of doctors. In the end, they drove him “plum crazy”, says Julia, resulting in the “mad escape fantasy” that his doctor called a “psychiatric suicide”.
‘People have affairs’
To complicate matters further, Stonehouse, a father of three, was engaged in a five-year affair with his secretary, Sheila Buckley (inset), 21 years his junior – who thought she was pregnant with his child.
When Stonehouse phoned the family for the first time since his apparent death, in the early hours of Christmas morning 1974, and his wife asked if he wanted her to come to Australia, he replied: “Yes, come as soon as you can and bring Sheila with you.”
The secretary was less than five years older than Julia, who was 23 at the time. Her sister Jane recorded in her diary: “What a nerve – he’s flipped his lid.”
Does Julia bear any anger towards her father? “No. I mean, angry for what? People have affairs. None of my business really.”
But he was with a previous lover on the day your mother was giving birth to you. “He fell in love with women, they fell in love with him,” Julia says nonchalantly.
Many would agree adultery is not the business of anyone outside the family, I reply, but surely it is very much the concern of the children involved. “We’re not that kind of a family,” she insists. “We don’t make moral judgements.”
Before the impact of the drugs, was Stonehouse fundamentally an honest man?
“He was a lovely person ” And honest? Julia takes a deep breath. “Well, you know, anybody who has an affair, by definition, can’t be honest,” she concedes, “but that is between him and his wife.”
She accepts he committed crimes and deserved a custodial punishment.
But if one were to remove the spy rumours (which she thinks swayed judge and jury) and take into account the impact of the drugs, his mental ill health and the lack of leniency (no one wanted to be accused of giving an MP an easy ride), how long should his sentence have been?
“I don’t know, two years. But not 95½ years. That is excessive by any standards.” Julia later follows up our interview with an email to say this question caught her “on the hop”: “I don’t even know what he should have been charged with. Is having a mental breakdown illegal? Is going bankrupt illegal? Is adultery illegal? If they are, then half the people in this country should be behind bars.”
‘Coldness and cruelty’
The trauma is still painfully close to the surface. Julia recently had to turn off Sean Bean’s BBC drama Time (“I can’t take prison scenes”). She says that between her and her mother, “a few tears have been shed, let me tell you, remembering it all. There was a lot of coldness and cruelty – the English fingers of cruelty.”
I tell her I was taken aback by a newspaper cartoon published upon her dad’s death, showing an abandoned set of clothes next to his gravestone. “Oh yeah,” she says with a grim laugh. “Welcome to our world.”
Rehabilitating her father’s reputation appears to be a Sisyphean task. The second paragraph of his Wikipedia page states he was a Czech agent as undisputed fact. Next week comes another book – written by Julian Hayes, the son of Stonehouse’s nephew and lawyer (though Julia says Hayes was only nine at the time and has not interviewed any of the immediate family). The title? Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy.
She says the only explanation for the “intensity of negativity” is the indelible stain of the spy story. “Because nobody likes a traitor. And it’s a mandatory life term.”
For Stonehouse, the punishment has lasted longer than life, enduring for the 33 years since – as the Wikipedia heading puts it – his “Actual death”. Time will tell whether a loyal daughter’s efforts can commute that sentence.
– John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP’ by Julia Stonehouse is out now (£16.99, Icon Books)
FAST FACTS: John Stonehouse
John Stonehouse was born in 1925. Active in the co-operative movement and a longtime anti-colonial campaigner, he was elected a Labour MP in 1957. He rose to become minister of aviation, the final postmaster general and a privy counsellor advising the Queen.
Stonehouse was arrested in Australia – five weeks after faking his death in Miami and was extradited to the UK six months later to face a 68-day trial. He made the longest dock statement in British history – lasting six days – and the ancient right was later abolished as a result.
In 1981 he married his mistress, Sheila Buckley, who gave birth to their son the following year. In 1988, he died in Sheila’s arms of a final heart attack, aged 62. Only one of his former parliamentary colleagues went to his funeral.