The Profumo Affair – 1963

Harold Macmillan, the Conservative prime minister of the day, may have declared that Britain had ‘never had it so good’ but, beneath the more relaxed atmosphere ushered in by the 1960s after years of postwar austerity, lay hidden undercurrents. Against a background of a nation still smarting from the humiliation of Suez and alive with Cold War jitters following the Cuban missile crisis, the early 1960s saw a number of high-profile spy trials, including the conviction of double agent George Blake. Then, on March 22 1963, John Profumo, the Minister for War and a rising star in Parliament, made a statement to the House of Commons in which he categorically refuted accusations levelled by fellow MPs of an affair with a young model, Christine Keeler.

The charge against a married minister of the Crown was serious enough given the prevailing mores, but what gave it far greater substance were the revelations that Miss Keeler was in fact a high-class call girl among whose clients was a military attache at the Russian Embassy. Rumors circulated that Profumo’s liaison with Keeler might have led to classified information on Britain’s nuclear capability being passed to the Russians. Profumo explained that he and his wife had met Keeler in 1961 at a party on Lord Astor’s Cliveden estate where they had been guests of Stephen Ward, a well-connected London osteopath. Profumo had met her several times subsequently but strenuously denied there had been any ‘impropriety’.

Less than three months later on June 5, Profumo tendered his resignation from government, admitting he had lied to Parliament. Although a subsequent inquiry found no evidence of security breaches, the scandal proved a fatal blow to the government, leading to Macmillan’s own resignation that autumn and victory at the following year’s polls for Harold Wilson’s Labour Party.

When: 1963

Where: UK

Death toll: Stephen Ward died in August 1963 after taking a fatal overdose towards the end of his trial on a charge of living off immoral earnings.

You should know: John Profumo, who died in March 2006 at the age of 91, devoted the rest of his long life to charitable work in the East End of London, winning huge respect and admiration in this role and resolutely shunning the public spotlight.

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