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A tale of sex, lies and vengeance

Walsall | News | Published:

It is hard not to wonder what thoughts would have gone through John Profumo's mind when he picked up his newspaper in September, 1976.

Fourteen years earlier, Profumo was at the height of his political career, a respected War Minister in Harold Macmillan's Government.

Now the man who seemingly took such great pleasure in destroying Profumo's career, had become embroiled in a spot of bother himself.

Lord Wigg, the former Dudley MP who shook the British Government to its foundations when he exposed Profumo's affair with prostitute Christine Keeler, had been arrested. For kerb crawling.

Surely Profumo would not have been human had he not felt a touch of schadenfreude?

"I don't think he was that sort of man," says Walsall historian Ian Payne, who has done considerable research into Wiggs' role in the affair. "Profumo was a kindly man who did good works, I don't think he would have taken much pleasure from it."

Lord Wigg, pictured in 1976

It is 50 years today since Profumo resigned both from Government, and as the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon. And this tale of sex, lies and vengeance continues to fascinate people to this day.

The seeds for Wigg's feud with Profumo were sown a year or so before the scandal broke.

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Wigg, a retired army colonel with sharp, rodent-like features which belied similar levels of political cunning, challenged Profumo about the kit issued to British troops serving in Kuwait.

He probably had a point, but Profumo wiped the floor with him in debate, leading to a simmering resentment that would eat away at Wigg for months.

Harold Wilson's press secretary Joe Haines once described Wigg as "a remarkable man with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier when he got his teeth into a subject". And he certainly got his teeth into Profumo.

The previous year, Profumo had been having an affair with Christine Keeler, a teenage prostitute who he met at the home of society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward. It later emerged that she had also been involved in a similar relationship with Eugene Ivanov, a naval attache at the Soviet embassy. Keeler would later claim that both Ward and Ivanov were Russian spies who would regularly prompt her for information.

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Rumours of the affair began to spread, and when Wigg – who would quite openly tell the hacks of Fleet Street about his desire to "get Profumo" – got wind of the story, he would barely have been able to contain himself.

And on March 21, 1963, he pounced. The Press was well aware of the stories circulating about the War Minister, but had not felt there was sufficient proof to print the story. So Wigg used his Parliamentary privilege to make sure everybody knew about the scandal. He told the Commons: "There is not an Honourable Member in this House, not a journalist in the press gallery, who, in the last few days, has not heard rumour upon rumour involving a member of the Government front bench.

"The Press has got as near as it could – it has shown itself willing to wound but afraid to strike.

"I rightly use the Privilege of the House of Commons to ask the Home Secretary, to go to the Dispatch Box. He knows the rumour to which I refer relates to Miss Christine Keeler and Miss

Davies and a shooting by a West Indian – and, on behalf of the Government, categorically deny the truth of these rumours."

Profumo lied to Parliament, denying his affair with Keeler, but the secret soon came out, and on June 5, 1963, he resigned. Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell resigned from the Government out of sympathy for Profumo.

The scandal marked the beginning of the end for Harold Macmillan's Conservative government. He survived a confidence vote, but resigned due to ill health four months later. His replacement, former foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home, looked like little more than a caretaker figure, and Labour won the following year's General Election, with the youthful Harold Wilson promising "a Britain forged in the white heat of revolution."

Wigg became a sort of Peter Mandelson figure in Wilson's government. While he never rose above the rank of Paymaster General, he was said to wield considerable influence, and was regarded by many as an unofficial deputy prime minister.

"He was more like a cross between Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson really, he was the first spin doctor," says Ian Payne.

Nicknamed the "Spymaster General", his talents in exposing Profumo made him the ideal man to serve as the Prime Minister's eyes and ears in the Commons. Fleet Street legend Chapman

Pinchers said Wigg's real job was "watchdog-in-chief to give early warning of any Labour scandals which the Tories might exploit in revenge." He later fell out with Wilson over the D-Notice scandal of 1967 – when Wilson accused the Daily Express newspaper of breaching two D-Notices which advised the press not to publish material which might damage national security – and quit Parliament to take up the post of chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board, and a seat in the House of Lords.

Then, in September 1976, Wigg was arrested by officers who had been following his red Triumph car late at night through the Park Lane area of London, and had been spotted approaching six women. At the time, kerb crawling was not in itself a criminal offence, so Wigg was charged with "using insulting behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace".

He vehemently denied the charges, accusing the police of telling lies about him.

He was ultimately acquitted. Wigg insisted he had been framed until his death in 1983, and Chapman Pincher – the journalist at the centre of the D-Notice scandal – says he was convinced his former friend Harold Wilson was behind it.

Pincher appeared as a defence witness at Wigg's trial, telling the court that the politician was trying to buy a copy of the following day's newspapers from a vendor outside Marble Arch tube station.

"As it was impossible to park there, the only solution if the vendor had not arrived was to circle until he came," said Pincher. "Nevertheless the magistrate, monstrously, branded Wigg a liar."

As for Profumo, he quietly settled into a life of obscurity, volunteering his services as a toilet cleaner at Toynbee Hall, a charity for the poor in the East End of London. He later became the charity's chief fundraiser, an unpaid post he continued to hold into his old age, and was awarded the CBE in 1975. Referring to Profumo's charity work, social reform campaigner and Labour peer Lord Longford said he "felt more admiration for him than all the men I've known in my lifetime."

But while many might consider Profumo's good works to have atoned from his earlier indiscretions, his name is one that will forever be associated with scandal.

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