The Profumo Affair Nearly Brought Down The U.K. Government – And There May Still Be A Cover-Up

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With Britain on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties, a scandalous affair emerged that pitted the conservative values of the past against the sexual freedom of the future. Just a teenager at the time, Christine Keeler found herself at the center of a story that would end more than one political career. And now, reports have emerged of an alleged cover-up that continues to this day.

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The story began on July 8, 1961, at Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire estate of Lord Astor. That weekend, the English aristocrat was hosting a party in honor of the president of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. Meanwhile, just down the river but still on Cliveden’s grounds, its resident osteopath Stephen Ward was hosting a separate party at his cottage. And between the two sets of guests were a man and woman who would become inextricably linked for decades to come.

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You see, one of Ward’s guests was Keeler, a 19-year-old aspiring model who worked as a topless dancer at a London club. Now, Ward was also a society osteopath who counted Astor and several other celebrities among his patients. And for months the teenager had been living with the much older Ward at his London flat in Marylebone. However, she claimed that it was purely a platonic relationship.

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In the evening at Cliveden, Ward took his guests up to the main building to use the swimming pool, for which he had permission. And there, Keeler crossed paths with John Profumo, an up-and-coming member of the Conservative Party and the British secretary of state for war. At the time, the 46-year-old was married to movie star Valerie Hobson. However, that didn’t stop him from developing an immediate attraction to Ward’s friend.

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Interestingly, Profumo wasn’t the only man to have his eye on Keeler that weekend at Cliveden. You see, among Ward’s other guests was Eugene Ivanov, a Russian naval attaché from the embassy. But there were also claims that he worked for the Soviet intelligence services, which kranked this story up a notch further.

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According to some, Ivanov and Keeler were already lovers before the party at Cliveden took place. However, the dancer herself claimed that they did not become romantically involved until after their return to London. Whatever the truth, it’s been suggested that the British intelligence service MI5 hoped to use the young woman as a honey trap against the Russian attaché.

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These plans were soon derailed, however, by Profumo, whose interest in the young dancer continued to grow. And just days after returning from Cliveden, the politician reached out to Keeler. With that, the pair embarked on a brief sexual affair that would destroy Profumo’s career. Furthermore, it would bring the Conservative government to its knees.

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Again, the exact details of the affair between Profumo and Keeler are unknown. According to some, their liaison lasted just a few weeks, while others claim that it continued for five months. For Keeler, it seems, the fling was a casual relationship of convenience – although she claimed that Profumo wanted something more long-term.

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After the affair was over, Profumo stated that Keeler was shallow and uneducated. But at the time, he seemed eager to impress his young lover. For example, in London he borrowed a luxury vehicle to take the dancer for a romantic drive and even invited her along for a drink with another politician. Typically, however, the pair’s clandestine meetings would take place at Ward’s London home.

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Eventually, the affair fizzled out. And were it not for a dramatic series of events, the whole scandal might have remained buried. You see, in October 1961 Keeler met Aloysius Gordon, a Jamaican singer with a somewhat unsavory reputation. And soon, the pair had become romantically involved.

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Before long, however, the relationship had turned sour. Apparently, Gordon was possessive and violent, continuing to harass Keeler even after she broke things off. Eventually, things got so bad that the dancer had her former lover arrested for assault. Keen to put things behind her, she headed to New York with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, another dancer.

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Apparently, the pair hoped to launch modeling careers on the other side of the pond. But when they were unsuccessful, they returned to London and Keeler began a relationship with Johnny Edgecombe, a jazz promoter from Antigua. Unfortunately, he also began exhibiting possessive behavior, and the love affair was short lived.

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What happened next is a matter of some debate. According to some, Keeler rekindled her romance with Gordon and went into hiding with him at Ward’s London home. However, others claim that the dancer was only holed up in the Marylebone property with Rice-Davies. But whatever the truth, the outcome was equally shocking.

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You see, on December 14, 1962, Edgecombe appeared on Ward’s doorstep, having followed Keeler to the address. And when he was refused entry to the property, he pulled out a gun and opened fire on the front door. Ultimately, the promoter was arrested and charged, but the incident propelled the two young girls into the spotlight – and opened the floodgates for the Profumo affair.

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As the media focused in on Keeler and Rice-Davies, rumors began to spread about their illicit affairs. And before long, the story of the attractive dancer who had bedded a politician and a Russian attaché had emerged. Fearful of a scandal, the Soviet government summoned Ivanov back to his home country, although that did little to defuse the situation.

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For months, rumors about Keeler and Profumo continued to spread. And eventually, on March 22, 1963, the minister was forced to make a statement to Parliament regarding the situation. In it, he assured his fellow politicians that there was no truth to the allegations. “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my relationship with Miss Keeler,” he said. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

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And despite Profumo’s denial, interest in his relationship with Keeler grew. Of course, the scandal of a married politician becoming romantically entangled with a young dancer was enough to keep many people interested. But against the backdrop of the Cold War, the case became even more intriguing. Was Ivanov really a Russian spy? And if so, might Keeler have been swapping secrets as well as beds?

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As the rumors continued to spread, London’s Metropolitan Police began investigating Ward’s own affairs. And when Keeler was brought in for questioning, she freely admitted to her sexual relationship with Profumo. Finally, ten weeks after denying the affair in front of Parliament, the politician was forced to admit that he had lied.

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So on June 4, 1963, Profumo, shamed by the scandal, resigned from the government. However, that did not stop prime minister Harold Macmillan’s opponents from using the affair against him, too. How had he not identified such a significant security risk, they asked. And before long, dissent began to spread throughout the Conservative Party.

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Meanwhile, the media were using the Profumo affair as a springboard to launch all manner of attacks against the morality of the British upper class. And in July 1963, Ward appeared in court, charged with making a living from “immoral sources.” Apparently, both Keeler and Rice-Davies had contributed small financial sums while staying at the osteopath’s London home. Nothing odd there, you might think.

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Well, by this point allegations had emerged that Keeler and Rice-Davies were prostitutes – further sullying Profumo’s reputation, as well as Ward’s. Now, the two were in fact not prostitutes, but the damage by smear had already been done. And Profumo wasn’t the only high-profile man to suffer during Ward’s trial. In court, Rice-Davies was questioned over an alleged relationship with Lord Astor, which the aristocrat had denied. “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” came her witty response.

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Then, on July 30, events took a tragic turn. Fearing the worst, Ward took an overdose the day before the verdict was announced. And although he was found guilty in his absence, he never regained consciousness to find out. Four days later, he passed away, leaving Keeler and Rice-Davies in the spotlight alone.

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Moving forward, the two women seemed to embrace their notoriety. Yes, in 1964 Rice-Davies released a memoir entitled The Mandy Report, which detailed her role in the scandal. Meanwhile, despite Keeler being jailed briefly for perjury in the fallout of an assault case against Gordon, she still eventually capitalized. Yes, she produced numerous written accounts of the scandal, sometimes altering her story as the years passed.

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However, in Westminster the British government proved far less resilient than Keeler and Rice-Davies. Under pressure to resign over the scandal, Macmillan initially insisted that he would stay on as prime minister. But when he fell ill in October 1963, he left office for good. And the following year, the Conservatives were voted out of power.

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But before leaving office, back in June 1963, Macmillan had instructed a senior judge named Lord Denning to look into the rumors surrounding Profumo. And for months, the public anxiously awaited the results of his investigation. Would its findings confirm or deny the stories of wild behavior among the upper echelons of British society?

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Eventually, on September 26, 1963, the Denning Report was released. In it, the judge acknowledged that Profumo had committed an “indiscretion,” although he did not believe that any security breach had taken place. Moreover, he also attempted to put to rest other salacious rumors that had emerged in the wake of the affair.

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For example, Rice-Davies had previously spoken about a masked man who appeared naked at parties, rumored to be a minister or a royal. But in the Denning Report, the judge claimed to have seen no evidence to support these allegations. Instead, he laid the blame for the entire Profumo affair squarely at the feet of Ward.

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As soon as the Denning Report was published, however, there were many who criticized its content. At the time, the political commentator Wayland Young stated that it was poorly reasoned and failed to answer many pressing questions. And over the years, a number of people have questioned the accuracy of the investigation.

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Part of the problem, it seems, is that the files relating to the Denning Report were never released to the public. After spending two years in consultation with the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives (ACNRA), the government decided to keep the documents under wraps. In fact, they ruled that this confidentially should remain until 2048.

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At the time, Denning claimed that he had promised anonymity to the people he had interviewed for the report. And as such, he wanted all of the associated files to be destroyed. However, these directions were not carried out, and instead the documents languished in the archives of the government’s Cabinet Office for decades.

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And in 1993 Sir Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary to prime minister John Major, was given the opportunity to take a closer look at the files. While he did not publicly reveal what they contained, he expressed a desire that they be preserved. He said, “They reflect an extraordinary episode and evoke the character of the 1960s in a very powerful way.”

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However, despite their historical significance, Butler agreed that the contents of the files should remain confidential for years to come. So what was it about these documents that inspired such reverence and fear? Well, in 2015 the Cabinet Office reached an agreement with the ACNRA regarding the future of the mysterious records.

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Even so, like much of the Profumo affair, the truth about what happened is difficult to come by.
Apparently, the Cabinet Office had been reluctant to give up the files at first. In fact, according to the minutes of an advisory meeting, officials alleged that the documents were a matter of national security.

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As such, the Cabinet Office argued that the documents could not be removed from their direct supervision. Later, however, this argument changed, and officials claimed that it was confidentiality that was the issue. For art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who spent seven years at the ACNRA, this behavior raised some questions.

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“I was very suspicious as the arguments to protect the papers kept changing,” Grosvenor told the BBC in 2020. “We fought off some rather spurious arguments. But by the end of it everyone felt rather worn down by the Cabinet Office.” Eventually, it was agreed that 25 boxes of files relating to the Denning Report would be transferred to the National Archives.

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Unfortunately, however, this arrangement came with a rather large catch. Of the 25 boxes, 23 would remain off-limits to the public for more than 30 years. According to documents from the ACNRA, some of the people named in the files have never been publicly identified. If these people are still alive, might this explain the need to extend the confidentiality of the documents? Or is something more sinister at play?

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So in December 2019 the BBC premiered The Trial of Christine Keeler, a television series dramatizing the events of the Profumo affair. And as interest in the case grew once more, Grosvenor spoke out about his suspicions surrounding the Denning Report. As he told the BBC, “It was hard to escape the conclusion that there was something of a cover-up going on.”

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In fact, Grosvenor claimed, he had “never [before] experienced such a concerted effort to withhold papers.” But despite the sensitive nature of the documents, he believes that they should be released. Meanwhile, officials at the National Archives refused a Freedom of Information request from the BBC for more information on the Denning Report.

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So is there still a cover-up being perpetuated, almost six decades after the Profumo affair took place? Certainly, it is now known that Denning ignored certain evidence that painted some politicians in a rather sordid light. And it has since been acknowledged that Ward was a scapegoat in the affair. But the true extent of the scandal looks set to remain a secret for another 28 years.

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Meanwhile, all of the key players in the story have since passed away. While Keeler never shook off her association with the scandal, Profumo went on to become a noted philanthropist, receiving an award from the queen for his charity work. But might there still be skeletons in his closet, currently concealed within the collections of the National Archives? Only time will tell.

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