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The true story behind the high-flying Labour MP who faked his own death: Scandalous life of John Stonehouse is turned into ITV drama – as his family and mistress slam the dramatisation that suggests he was a spy

  • John Stonehouse vanished while swimming in the sea off Miami in the 1970s
  • A three-part ITV drama will retell the story of the late MP’s disappearance
  • Theories speculated a heart-attack, drowning, or that he’d been eaten by a shark

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As spy thrillers go, the story of John Stonehouse, the British politician who vanished while swimming in the sea off Miami in the early 1970s, is up there with the best of them.

The only trace left by the Labour MP for Walsall North was a pile of neatly folded clothes in a beachside cabana next to his luxury hotel. 

Theories soon abounded about what had happened to the married father-of-three; it was said he had suffered a heart attack and drowned or been eaten by a shark or, even, been kidnapped by the Mafia.

As the rumour mill ground on, murky details surfaced about his business interests and private life. But — as would become clear when he was discovered alive and well five weeks later — Stonehouse, a high-flying minister in Harold Wilson’s government, had faked his own death on November 20, 1974, coming ashore further along the Florida coast and changing into clothes he had left earlier at another hotel before fleeing to Australia under a false identity.

A three-part ITV drama starring Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse and his real-life wife Keeley Hawes as his onscreen spouse will retell the story of the late MP's disappearance

A three-part ITV drama starring Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse and his real-life wife Keeley Hawes as his onscreen spouse will retell the story of the late MP’s disappearance

His hapless attempt to start a new life with his mistress, while leaving his wife and children to believe he was dead was, without a doubt, one of the most surreal chapters in British political history and one which, nearly half a century on, has come back to haunt them.

For, next week, a new three-part ITV drama starring Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse and his real-life wife Keeley Hawes as his onscreen spouse will retell the extraordinary story of the late MP’s Reggie Perrin-style disappearance. But with three different books written about Stonehouse in recent years, including one by his own daughter, recollections around this jaw-dropping saga — as the saying now goes — vary.

Was Stonehouse, as is now largely accepted by historians, a spy for the Czech Secret Service?

Or did he simply vanish in the midst of some kind of nervous breakdown after a series of dubious business deals and an affair with his secretary?

The Mail spoke to those who have intimate knowledge of the scandal and it seems not everyone is happy with the version of events due to be played out on our screens from Monday — particularly one of his daughters. ‘I’m disgusted with ITV,’ says 71-year-old Julia Stonehouse, the author of John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story Of The Runaway MP.

Theories soon abounded about what had happened to the married father-of-three; it was said he had suffered a heart attack and drowned or been eaten by a shark or, even, been kidnapped by the Mafia

Theories soon abounded about what had happened to the married father-of-three; it was said he had suffered a heart attack and drowned or been eaten by a shark or, even, been kidnapped by the Mafia

Despite early meetings with scriptwriter John Preston, the author of the book A Very English Scandal, about disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, which was adapted for an acclaimed 2018 TV drama, starring Hugh Grant, she has not collaborated on the ITV production about her father.

She describes the forthcoming Stonehouse drama as ‘exploitative’, saying it has left her long-suffering 91-year-old mother — the MP’s ex-wife Barbara — ‘furious’.

She adds: ‘It’s emotionally damaging to us. It’s emotionally abusive to the family. It’s always been about money. I’m absolutely furious. So is my mother. So is my entire family.

‘I hope Keeley [Hawes] and that bloke she’s married to are pleased with themselves.’

Julia denies that her ‘wonderful’ father was a spy and is adamant a mental breakdown, hastened by his addiction to prescription drugs for anxiety and insomnia, lay behind his attempts to embark on a new life abroad with his much younger secretary, Sheila Buckley.

‘Nobody knew but inside his head he was silently exploding’, writes Julia in her book. Tossing a spanner into the literary works, however, is Stonehouse’s great-nephew, Julian Hayes, who tells a rather different story.

His book, Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy, paints a picture of Stonehouse as a ‘callous’ and grasping individual who faked his own death after a string of catastrophic and fraudulent business failures.

Hayes’s father Michael, an impressionable trainee solicitor at the time of the scandal, was unwittingly dragged into the fray by his uncle after assisting him with his business affairs and later gave evidence against him in court.

In what is described as the ‘definitive biography’, Hayes, 57, a criminal barrister, details how he unearthed secret reports in archives in Prague which, he says, prove beyond all reasonable doubt that at the height of the Cold War, Stonehouse was a spy in the pay of the Czech security services.

‘I can understand why Julia wants to try to preserve his memory,’ Hayes says. ‘She wants to protect what she can. But unfortunately it blinds her to things that aren’t terribly palatable from her point of view.’

The Mail spoke to those who have intimate knowledge of the scandal and it seems not everyone is happy with the version of events due to be played out on our screens from Monday

The Mail spoke to those who have intimate knowledge of the scandal and it seems not everyone is happy with the version of events due to be played out on our screens from Monday

Adding further grist to the Stonehouse mill is a third book, Agent Twister: John Stonehouse And The Scandal That Gripped The Nation, which portrays Stonehouse as a ‘serial betrayer’ and a Soviet Bloc ‘spy’. It is described by its authors, Philip Augar and Keely Winstone, as the ‘only impartial, thoroughly researched account of the whole Stonehouse story’.

‘Stonehouse was an extremely charismatic and dangerous guy,’ Keely Winstone tells me. ‘He showed no remorse. It will be odd if ITV have made this into a jaunty tale, as he wasn’t a very nice man.’

Meanwhile, Stonehouse’s widow, his former secretary and mistress Sheila Buckley, has also given the Mail her damning verdict on the impending ITV drama, likening it to a ‘fairy tale’. Sheila, who was 21 years younger than Stonehouse, eventually became his wife and the mother of his fourth child.

‘It’s just a tissue of lies most of it, all the new stuff. There’s hardly any accuracy in it at all,’ she says, speaking from her detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac near Southampton. Now 76, Sheila — who was just 22 when she first met Stonehouse — adds: ‘The man’s been dead years. Let him rest in peace. It’s indecent. He isn’t here to defend himself. It’s appalling manners but that’s society now, isn’t it?’

So which ‘version’ of events will form the basis of the ITV drama? Above all, is it possible to get to the truth about the disgraced philanderer and former Cabinet minister, about whom passions still run high nearly half a century after he faked his death?

Stonehouse's widow, his former secretary and mistress Sheila Buckley, has also given the Mail her damning verdict on the impending ITV drama, likening it to a 'fairy tale'

Stonehouse’s widow, his former secretary and mistress Sheila Buckley, has also given the Mail her damning verdict on the impending ITV drama, likening it to a ‘fairy tale’

According to ITV, the drama will take in his affair with Sheila and his betrayal of his loving wife as well as his work for the Czech secret service in the 1960s. (Julian Hayes says he has acted as a consultant on the drama but that it is not based on his book because ‘rather like Chinese whispers, the narrative and the facts have been perverted over the years.’)

Succession actor Macfadyen, who plays Stonehouse, has given an insight into the tone of the production, talking about how the MP ‘relished the glamour’ of his espionage double life: ‘In his mind’s eye he was Edward Fox, Roger Moore — one of those guys in an overcoat with the collar turned up,’ he says.

‘A case of: ‘Well, if I’m going to be a spy, I might as well enjoy it.’ I imagine he created his own James Bond soundtrack in his head.

‘I think it just became too much. It all unravelled. I played it as if he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Although, as his wife later points out once he reappears, if he was having a breakdown, he planned it all very well in advance.’

Keeley Hawes, meanwhile, describes the script as ‘a heightened version of the truth’ and ‘a tragic story but it’s also both funny and moving’. She adds: ‘We are dealing with a real person and other people who are still alive.

‘Everybody wanted to be very respectful to the memory of John Stonehouse . . . but you are making a TV show. A three-part drama not a documentary.’

In fact, there was a Stonehouse documentary, The Spy Who Died Twice, an hour-long programme broadcast on Channel 4 in May this year, was based on Augar and Winstone’s Agent Twister book. The title is the nickname Stonehouse was given by the Czechs because he was so unreliable.

‘There are elements of the story that are comical or comi-tragic for sure,’ says Winstone, ‘but ultimately he was happy for his family to think him dead and to get on with another life without them. That’s extremely dark.’

She points out that in order to obtain fake passports and open bank accounts as he planned his disappearance, Stonehouse stole the identities of two of his dead constituents, visiting their widows at home under the guise of assisting one-parent families before stealing the men’s birth certificates. He had been inspired after reading Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day Of The Jackal.

It took six months to extradite them to the UK where he was remanded in custody at Brixton Prison until August 1975

It took six months to extradite them to the UK where he was remanded in custody at Brixton Prison until August 1975

Julia acknowledges her father’s behaviour was ‘terrible’ but says ‘it was only brought about by terrible stress and the effects of mind-twisting prescribed drugs’.

She argues the spying allegations were fabricated by a Czech defector called Frolik and seized upon by ‘Right-wing elements within MI5’. Winstone, meanwhile, says: ‘I don’t buy the idea that his actions were the result of a nervous breakdown and neither did the judge. There was too much method for it to be madness.

‘He might have had mental health issues, or possibly what we’d now call a personality disorder, but the only breakdown as such seemed to be after he was caught.’

The whole scheme unravelled within weeks thanks to an eagle-eyed bank teller in Australia who became suspicious when Stonehouse started transferring large sums of money between accounts using different, fake names. Initially, it was suspected Stonehouse could be Lord Lucan, who’d disappeared two weeks earlier.

Sheila Buckley became embroiled in the scam after he called her from Hawaii, on his way to Australia, swearing her to secrecy. She flew out to join him months later after he’d been arrested and was on bail.

It took six months to extradite them to the UK where he was remanded in custody at Brixton Prison until August 1975. Incredibly, he continued to serve as an MP for another year, largely because Labour’s Parliamentary majority was so narrow then.

Sheila was alongside him at the Old Bailey in 1976 when he was jailed for seven years for fraud, theft and deception while she was found guilty of theft and handed a two-year suspended sentence.

The judge told her: ‘I think you were extremely unfortunate that you met this persuasive, deceitful and ambitious man.’

Nevertheless, she stayed by him. After Stonehouse was released from jail in 1979 on the grounds of good behaviour and ill health, they married in 1981, set up home in Hampshire and had a son. He was only 62 when he died after a heart attack in 1988.

Despite his dramatic fall from political grace, he had largely got away with his spying activities for which he is believed to have been paid between £70,000 and £80,000 in today’s money.

In the last years of his life, Stonehouse was able to reinvent himself as the author of political and espionage thrillers, brazenly appearing on Russell Harty’s chat show to debunk, light-heartedly the ‘awful story’ that he was a Czech spy.

The spy claims against him are undoubtedly the most divisive aspect of this story. According to Keely Winstone: ‘History is always a matter of interpretation but 500 pages of Czech files compiled by four separate agents over a ten-year period show Stonehouse was in the pay of a Soviet satellite state, first as an MP and then as minister. He remains the only serving minister known to have been in the pay of any enemy power. And this was in the Cold War.’

Julian Hayes says: ‘He was a Jekyll and Hyde character. One side of him wanted to be good, the public servant and family man but his downfall was his ego, which the Czechs massaged, and his ambition.’

The assertion that her father was a spy still outrages Julia Stonehouse, particularly an allegation — which the three other authors say is unfounded but will feature in the ITV drama — that Stonehouse was caught in a honey trap.

She complained to Ofcom about this year’s Channel 4 documentary and sent letters of complaint about Hayes’ book to his publisher. Now she says her mother ‘might sue’ over ITV’s new drama.

‘Every word of it is going to give my mother a heart attack,’ she says. ‘It’s just a nightmare, an utter, utter nightmare.’

Just how far the TV series delves into Stonehouse’s spying activities remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt is that John Stonehouse was a masterful manipulator, a skilled liar and dissembler.

For beyond the claims that he was a traitor to his country and his constituents, is the way he callously betrayed those who loved him most.

Source: Daily Mail UK

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