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Top 50 Political Scandals: Part One

Part One of The Spectator’s Guide to the 50 Biggest Scandals — counting down from 50 to 26

8 July 2009

12:00 AM

8 July 2009

12:00 AM

There is one word that frightens politicians more than any other: scandal.

They know that scandal can bring about personal ruin, cut short a promising career and even bring down a government.

The power of scandal is that it imprints itself on the public mind. Some are about sex, others about money, drugs or espionage. But they are all about power: the corrupter, the ultimate aphrodisiac.

This is your guide to the scandalous world of Westminster. Read on.

50. Sex and the Palace, March 2009

You wait years for a good, old-fashioned Commons sex scandal, and then one comes along and is immediately buried by weightier political controversy.

It was 22 March 2009 when the News of the World ran its exclusive on Nigel Griffiths. The married Labour MP for Edinburgh South had ‘cavorted’ with a mystery brunette in his Commons office — on Remembrance Day, of all days — and recorded the whole thing on camera. The paper printed some of the pictures it had got its hands on, including one of a stockinged leg poking out from behind an oak-panelled door. It was all salaciously compelling stuff. But then, exactly a week later, news of Jacqui Smith’s porn-film claims broke, kicking off the MPs’ expenses scandal good and proper. Griffiths’s dalliance was relegated to a footnote in the public mind.

49. Euan Blair arrested for being drunk and incapable, 5 July 2000

‘Sixteen-year-old boy gets stupidly drunk and vomits all over Leicester Square after finishing GCSEs’ is not much of a news story.

But when the 16-year-old in question is Tony Blair’s son and the Prime Minister has just proposed marching drunks to cashpoints to pay on-the-spot fines, it is a rather different matter. Just to make things worse for the Blairs, Euan initially gave a false name, address and age when arrested by the police for being drunk and incapable. His true identity was only discovered when he was searched.

48. Don’t let the buggers get you down, 1993

Michael Mates had served in parliament since 1974 but his opposition to Mrs Thatcher (he led the revolt against the poll tax) meant he had never obtained ministerial office.

However, in 1992, John Major appointed him Minister of State at the Northern Ireland office. Mates’s ministerial career, though, was to be ended by his support for Asil Nadir.

Nadir, a Turkish-Cypriot, was the CEO of Polly Peck and a major Tory donor. The company had grown and grown in the 1980s, becoming the biggest fruit distributor in the world. Yet in 1990 it went bankrupt with debts of £1.3 billion. Facing 13 charges of theft, Nadir skipped bail and fled on 4 May 1993 to the unrecognised republic of Northern Cyprus from which he could not be extradited. Later that month, it was revealed that Mates had sent Nadir a watch bearing the inscription ‘Don’t let the buggers get you down’ after his watch had been confiscated by the authorities.

At first, Mates, with the support of the Prime Minister, seemed set to ride out the storm. But then in June a letter emerged supposedly showing that Mates had complained to the Attorney General about the handling of the Nadir case. This and a dinner that Mates held with Nadir’s PR man were the final straws and Mates resigned on 24 June.

47. A ‘back to basics’ resignation, January 1994

Tim Yeo was hardly a crucial figure in the Major government, but as a junior minister he was fair game once John Major launched his ‘back to basics’ campaign.

ON BOXING Day 1993, the Mirror broke the news that Yeo had a love child with a Conservative councillor. The child had been born nine months after the Tory conference. Yeo filled the Christmas-to-New Year political news vacuum. With his constituency association demanding some kind of sacrifice (they had never warmed to Yeo), he quit as a minister on 5 January.

46. ‘A sex act too revolting to describe’, 2004 to 2006

Oaten won his parliamentary seat in 1997 by a majority of two. But the High Court ordered a re-run of the election, which Oaten won by a massive 21,556 votes. By 2003 he was Lib Dem home affairs spokesman and tipped as a future party leader.

BUT IN January 2004, the married Oaten began seeing a 23-year-old rent boy. Oaten later claimed that he ‘was trying to fatally undermine my own political career’ because he ‘could never bring myself to resign from the front bench’. He also cited, to much derision, a ‘dramatic loss of hair’ as playing a role in the whole affair.

On 10 January 2006, Oaten declared for the Lib Dem leadership despite knowing what might be exposed about him. Nine days later he withdrew because of a lack of support. But that weekend, the News of the World approached him to say that they knew about his affair with the rent boy, his three-in-a-bed romps and his partaking in what the paper called a ‘bizarre sex act too revolting to describe’. The nature of that act produced much speculation. It must be the only time that coprophilia has been discussed in the opinion pages of the Sunday Telegraph.

Oaten resigned immediately as Lib Dem home affairs spokesman and later announced he would quit as an MP at the next election.

45. The Ashdown affair, February 1992

It was a superb headline; even its victim called it ‘dreadful but brilliant’. In February 1992, the Sun reported an affair that Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, had had with his former secretary under the headline ‘It’s Paddy Pantsdown’.

ASHDOWN, knowing that the story was to come out in the News of the World following a break-in at his solicitor’s, decided to announce the news himself. He weathered the storm with surprising ease. John Major and Neil Kinnock both offered their sympathy, his former lover declined tens of thousands of pounds to spill her story and Ashdown’s wife stood by him. In his recent autobiography, Ashdown admitted that his fondness for the ladies had started at a young age: he lost his virginity to his maths tutor when he was 14.

44. John Gummer reassures the public about BSE, May 1990

At the Suffolk Boat Show on 16 May 1990, then agriculture secretary John Gummer tried to feed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger.

THE STUNT backfired horribly. Cordelia refused to eat it and the whole incident only heightened concern about BSE and reinforced public cynicism about politicians’ pronouncements on food safety.

43. ‘A moment of madness’, October 1998

A single ‘moment of madness’ spurned a seven-year saga for Ron Davies, which saw him resign from a string of high-profile posts, including secretary of state for Wales, leader of the Labour party in the Welsh Assembly and chairman of the Assembly’s economic development committee.

The pioneer of Welsh devolution first came under the spotlight in 1998 when he was robbed after seeking gay sex with a stranger on Clapham Common. Following this self-confessed ‘moment of madness’, Davies stepped down as Welsh Secretary and 11 months later announced that he would not be standing again as an MP in the 2001 general election.

Unfortunately for Davies this was not to be his only ‘mad moment’, and in 2003 the Sun published photos of him leaving a gay sex haunt. At first Davies claimed ignorance, then ‘confusion’, and then that he had been there previously to watch badgers. He finally admitted defeat and quit as the Welsh Assembly member for Caerphilly.

Just when we thought it was all over, however, 2007 saw Davies stand unsuccessfully as an independent Assembly member for Caerphilly. Might there be more moments to come before Davies leaves the scene for good?

42. The Coldstream Guard, November 1958

Ian Harvey had impeccable credentials: Fettes, Christ Church, Oxford, president of the Union and a war record. He was elected to parliament in 1950. By 1958 he had risen to be a parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office.

THAT November, though, he was found in the bushes in St James’s Park with a member of the Coldstream Guards. Harvey attempted to escape but was caught and arrested. His attempt to give a false name failed and he and the guardsman were fined £5 each for breaching park regulations. Harvey felt obliged to resign his job and his seat. However, he returned to politics later as vice-chair of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and chair of the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality.

41. The Deripaska affair, October 2008

It seemed so clever at the time. As Peter Mandelson’s stunning rapprochement with Gordon Brown was dominating the headlines, the Sunday Times splashed on a story that Mandelson had savaged Brown to a senior shadow cabinet member, not named in the story but identifiable as George Osborne, just months before.

IT WAS reported that at a dinner in Corfu Mandelson had dripped ‘pure poison’ in Osborne’s ear about Brown. Mandelson denied the story. But Times journalist Daniel Finkelstein — a close friend of Osborne — immediately stated that he had heard the same story.

After this, Mandelson went on the offensive. Nathaniel Rothschild, Osborne’s host in Corfu, wrote a blistering letter to the Times alleging that Osborne and the Conservative fundraiser Andrew Feldman had visited the controversial Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska on his yacht and tried to solicit a donation from him to the Tory party, channelled through one of his British companies. Such a donation would have been against the spirit of election law.


In the subsequent media frenzy, Osborne found himself fighting for his political life. Mandelson had shown that the old dog could still teach this young pup a thing or two.

40. Conway and son, 2008

Over a year before the MPs’ expenses scandal shook Britain, Derek Conway, the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, offered a sneak preview of the crisis to come.

In MAY 2007, the Sunday Times reported that Conway was employing his son using the parliamentary staffing allowance, despite him being a student at Newcastle University, several hundred miles from London.

In January 2008 Mr Conway was suspended for ten days and ordered to repay about £13,000 after the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee found that he had paid his son at a full-time equivalent rate of £25,970 per year for work of which there was ‘no record’. The Committee’s investigation into Conway’s employment of his son Freddie followed a complaint brought by Michael Barnbrook, a retired policeman, who had stood against him as a candidate for the UK Independence party.

Following Cameron’s removal of the party whip from him, the pressure eventually became too much for the disgraced MP and the next day Mr Conway announced that he would be stepping down at the next election. Sound familiar?

39. Blunkett and the publisher, 2004

David Blunkett’s life story was crucial to his political persona. He had been born blind to a working-class family in Sheffield and his father had died after an industrial accident when he was still a boy. But despite these humble roots, the scandal that would bring Blunkett down was one involving the cream of society.

Blunkett’s was the big promotion after Tony Blair’s 2001 election win, as he moved from education to the Home Office. Three years later, his political stock was high — he was even talked about as a potential prime minister. Then, in August 2004, the tabloids revealed he was having an affair with a married woman. It quickly emerged that the woman in question was Kimberly Quinn, publisher of The Spectator, and that she was pregnant. Things t
urned bad for Blunkett in November when it was alleged that he had fast-tracked the visa application of Quinn’s nanny. The situation worsened when criticisms he had made of his Cabinet colleagues to his biographer became public.

Before the Home Office inquiry into whether or not he had fast-tracked the visa reported its findings, Blunkett resigned. He returned to the Cabinet in 2005 but had to resign again within months in a row over him taking a directorship at DNA Bioscience after his first resignation from government.

38. John Prescott and Tracey Temple, 2006

Two Jags became Two Shags with the revelation that John Prescott had had an affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple.

Temple sold her story for a fee that was rumoured to be north of a quarter of a million pounds. She claimed that she and Prescott used to have sex in the office while other civil servants worked outside the open door. But the biggest surprise was still to come. In his autobiography, Prescott admitted to being bulimic.

37. Cecil Parkinson and Sara Keays, 1983

Cecil Parkinson was on a fast track to the top — possibly the very top — of British politics.

THIS charming, good-looking, self-made millionaire was a favourite of the Prime Minister. He became Tory party chairman in 1981 and helped mastermind the party’s landslide victory in 1983. Margaret Thatcher reportedly wanted him to become foreign secretary after the election, but the married Parkinson told her that his secretary Sara Keays was pregnant with his child. He was sent to trade and industry instead.

Parkinson attempted to control the story by admitting to the affair on 5 October 1983. But his career was torpedoed when Keays released a statement to the Times on the day of the Tory conference saying that he had offered to marry her and then reneged on the offer. Parkinson resigned that day.

The identity of the child was kept secret by a strict court order until she was 18, and after Thatcher’s 1987 election victory Parkinson returned to the Cabinet. But he was never to be a serious contender for the highest office in the land again.

36. The Hindujas, the Dome, Peter Mandelson and a passport, January 2001

When Lord Mandelson first saw the headline of the story that would lead to his second resignation, his antennae did not even twitch.

‘Mandelson helped Dome backer’s passport bid,’ said the Observer. The then Northern Ireland Secretary dismissed it as a ‘nothing story’. But it was, as Sir Anthony Hammond’s inquiry would later show, a spectacular story of the complex, incestuous relationships at the very heart of New Labour. It would finish Mandelson off as a minister within five days.

Every capital city in the West has people like Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja: foreign billionaires in trouble in their own country and finding how easy it is to make friends if you have limitless funds to donate to charity. And yet the Hindujas were apparently not Labour donors. Even now, it is far from clear just why they had such close relationships with everyone who seemed to matter at the top of the government.

By 1997 they had become — in the words of Mandelson himself — ‘friends of New Labour’. And those friends were in need of a passport.

Srichand had acquired one, approved in the dying days of the Major government, but Gopichand had not. In October 1998, they agreed to underwrite the Faith Zone of the Millennium Dome to the tune of £3 million. A week later Gopichand applied for a passport. It was granted in March.

Once the Millennium Dome was open, the brothers felt confident enough to ask Mandelson about a passport for a third brother, Prakash. He passed this request to Jack Straw, who sent him back a handwritten note promising to ‘be back in touch as soon as I can’. The Cabinet were treating the Hindujas like royalty — until October 2000, when they were formally charged with criminal conspiracy and corruption by the Indian government.

It was the redoubtable Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat backbencher and amateur sleazebuster, who laid down a parliamentary question about the links between the government and the brothers. It was answered on 19 January 2001.

As so often in political scandal, it was the cover-up that was the problem. Straw wanted to say that Mandelson had made ‘verbal inquiries’ of Mike O’Brien, the immigration minister. But this clashed with the fact that Alastair Campbell had told journalists that Mandelson ‘had not got involved in the matter’. Mandelson denied speaking to O’Brien, but later admitted he may have done. Campbell then told journalists that Mandelson had changed his story. Mandelson later changed it back. And all in front of the cameras.

Suddenly, this was not about two Indians and a passport — it was a window into the relationship between Blair, Campbell and Mandelson. Campbell was furious that he had been misled by Mandelson, who was in turn furious about being portrayed to the media as having had a suspicious attack of amnesia. The fire was heading all the way up to Tony Blair — unless it could be put out. And that could only be done by sacking Mandelson. This was, after all, the minister who had had to resign a couple of years earlier over a home loan from Geoffrey Robinson. He looked like a liability.

People still argue that Campbell, in effect, sacked Mandelson by refusing to answer journalists who asked him whether Mandelson had Blair’s ‘full confidence’. Mandelson was gone before 3 p.m., although Mandelson and Blair sat next to one another defiantly through Prime Minister’s Questions later that afternoon. Mandelson himself thinks he was brutalised, and the Hammond inquiry did eventually exonerate everyone.

When Mandelson read his resignation statement outside Number 10, he said he had decided to ‘lead a more normal life’. And while he could hardly have known it, this was the biggest factual error of all.

35. David Mellor goes from toe job to no job, 1992

David Mellor was Britain’s first Minister for Fun. But he was having too much of it. The Spanish actress Antonia de Sancha kissed and told on him.

The affair was memorable for two things: Mellor reportedly wearing a Chelsea strip while making love to her, and for him allegedly sucking her toes. Both details were fabricated, but they made for great tabloid fodder.

But what ended Mellor’s career, rather than just making him an object of ridicule, was the revelation that he had enjoyed free holidays courtesy of the daughter of a PLO official and the ruler of Abu Dhabi. He had become too much of a political embarrassment for his old friend John Major, and he resigned from the Cabinet. His inglorious exit from politics came on election night in 1997 as a crowd slow-hand-clapped him and chanted ‘out, out, out’ as he made a defiant concession speech.

34. Lord Lambton works out his frustrations, 1973

It wasn’t Profumo, but it included sex, call-girls, drugs and the very highest echelons of British society.

Lord Lambton, a Tory MP and the cousin of former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas Home, was photographed smoking cannabis in bed with two call-girls, leading to his resignation in May 1973 as parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Defence and as an MP.

An investigation found that there had been no security breach involved. Indeed, Lambton told the MI5 officer investigating that it was irritation with the futility of his job that had led him to visit prostitutes. When Robin Day asked him in a TV interview why a man of his charm had to go to whores, Lambton replied: ‘I think that people sometimes like variety.’

Lambton moved from England to his family’s Tuscan estate. There he seduced a string of women and tried to seduce many more, as well as writing several books.

33. Prescott punches a voter, 2001

John Prescott put a unique spin on pressing the flesh when he thumped protesting farm worker Chris Evans during a walkabout in Rhyl in the 2001 campaign.

Prescott’s career was saved by the fact that Evans had just thrown an egg at him, allowing the deputy prime minister to claim self-defence and thus avoid legal trouble. However, Labour spin doctors were concerned enough to lie by denying the incident outright when Sky’s Adam Boulton first broke the news.

32. Alan Clark legislating while under the influence, 1983

After an impressive first performance at the dispatch box, Alan Clark decided he could go to a wine-tasting before his next appearance.

In HIS diaries, Clark records that he ‘tasted first a bottle of ’61 Palmer’, then ‘for comparison’ a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville&
#8217;. As Clark worked his way through his statement, the House grew restless. Clare Short made a point of order, saying that while she couldn’t accuse Clark of being drunk, his ‘condition’ was ‘disrespectful to the House’.

Despite Labour objections, Clark managed to make it through to the end of his speech and the government carried its business. But Clark was to have several more brushes with scandal in his political career. He was intimately involved in the whole ‘arms to Iraq’ business and was famously cited in a divorce case in which he had sexual relations with the wife of a South African judge and both of her two daughters. Clark infamously called these three women ‘the coven’.

31. Robin Cook and the airport lounge divorce, 1997

Scandals tend to break when they fit a broader narrative. So during Labour’s years in opposition and at the height of Tory sleaze stories, there was little interest in the fact that Robin Cook, then shadow foreign secretary, was having an affair. But within four months of Labour coming to power, the story made front-page news.

The News of the World told Downing Street on Friday that the story would break at the weekend. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press man, told Cook the news as he and his wife were transferring flights before heading off on a foreign holiday. Cook took the news calmly and cancelled the trip. He also took on board Campbell’s emphasis upon the need for transparency. The next day he announced that he was leaving his wife to set up home with his mistress. Proof that for New Labour, message discipline ruled even in affairs of the heart.

30. We are not amused with the Prime Minister, 1986

One necessary fiction of Britain’s constitutional arrangements is that the monarch has no political opinions.

So WHEN the Sunday Times splashed on 20 July 1986 on tensions between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, it created a political frenzy. The story, which quoted ‘sources close to the Queen’, reported that ‘the Queen considers the Prime Minister’s approach to be often uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive’.

The row rolled on for days, with palace press secretary Michael Shea desperately attempting to deny the story for which he was the source. After duelling letters from the palace and the Sunday Times in the Times, the row calmed down. But by the end of it no one could be in any doubt that the Queen and those around her had serious doubts about the Prime Minister and her policies.

29. Mandelson’s home loan, 1998

Peter Mandelson’s stock was rising steadily in 1998. He had made the transition from spinner and fixer to full Cabinet member with ease. His five months at the Department of Trade and Industry had gone so well that his ambition to match his grandfather’s achievement and become foreign secretary seemed well within reach.

BUT THEN a bombshell dropped: Mandelson had taken a secret loan of £373,000 from the Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house in Notting Hill. To make things worse, Robinson’s business affairs were under investigation by Mandelson’s own department.

Mandelson believed that he could ride out the storm and was furious at the Brownites who he thought had leaked the story to damage him. But Blair disagreed and Mandelson was forced to resign two days before Christmas. The resignations did not stop there. In the New Year, Charlie Whelan resigned as Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, saying that the speculation about whether or not he had leaked the Mandelson story, something he denied, made it impossible for him to do his job.

28. Arms to Iraq, 1991-96

Almost 20 years ago, a businessman from Coventry arrived at work to find two dozen Customs officials waiting to raid his office.

Paul Henderson was managing director of Matrix Churchill, an engineering firm that was soon to become famous for all the wrong reasons. It was a world leader in specialised metal-cutting machinery, and had been sending more than a few of its products to Iraq. The Customs men believed that Henderson had done this in explicit violation of a ban on arms sales.

Mr Henderson called his MI6 handler straight away. He had been working closely with British intelligence, who knew precisely what he was selling to Iraq and why. They were using him to gather information about Saddam Hussein’s regime. He also knew that several ministers from John Major’s government knew all about his exports, and had granted licences. How could Matrix Churchill have broken the law if it was working so closely with the government? MI6 told him it would die down. They could not have been more wrong.

Three directors were arrested and put on trial at the Old Bailey, to the horror of the ministers who had approved their deals. Whitehall went into damage limitation mode. Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney general, advised ministers to sign public interest immunity certificates to ensure the defendants would not be able to cite documents showing they acted with official approval. Yet this all collapsed when Alan Clark took to the witness stand and admitted that Matrix had been permitted to export £37 million worth of arms-making machine tools to Iraq.

Once the Matrix Churchill Three walked, another scandal opened. How had the British government been able to act in apparent violation of its own export policy? Why was parliament not informed of this change in practice? John Major ordered a review to be held by Sir Richard Scott, who was widely regarded as an independent and forceful judge (having recently found against the government over the Spycatcher case). He went on to survey 130,000 documents — one of the most exhaustive inquiries in British history.

The Scott inquiry uncovered a staggering milieu of deceit, disarray and dissembling. The government had used emergency wartime powers, which Attlee had forgotten to abolish, to change export licences without having to inform parliament. And while Britain had signed the UN embargo banning the sale of arms and dual-use equipment to Iraq, ministers regarded this as redundant after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, and encouraged Matrix Churchill to go ahead.

So why not tell the public? William Waldegrave cited national security issues. Sir Richard said in his report that this was utterly bogus. ‘The overriding and determinative reason’ for not telling parliament ‘was a fear of strong public opposition to the loosening of the restrictions on the supply of defence equipment to Iraq, and a consequential fear that the pressure of the opposition might be detrimental to British trading interests.’ In other words, it was an 18-carat cover-up.

The damage done to the Major government was immense, as it cemented the idea of an overbearing, arrogant state mistrustful of the people it was supposed to be serving. Sir Richard summed up its attitude thus: ‘We know what is good for you. You may not like it and, if you were made aware of it, you might protest, but we know what is best.’ Robin Cook’s evisceration of the government in the Commons is remembered as one of Labour’s finest moments in opposition.

A small memorial plaque stands in place of the Matrix Churchill factory, which has now been flattened. Once regarded as one of the finest businesses of its kind anywhere in the world, it died within two years of the arrests; 650 jobs were lost. And although no minister resigned after the Scott inquiry, the scandal helped harry the Major government to its grave.

27. Cherie, the con man and his girlfriend, 2002

Many in the press had it in for Cherie Blair, so it came as a delight for them when it turned out that she was involved with a convicted con man.

Cherie had decided to buy a couple of flats in Bristol, where her son Euan was going to unive
rsity. Not having the time to look at them herself, she had deputed her lifestyle guru Carole Caplin (above) to do so. Caplin was controversial enough (she believed in a lot of odd new-agey things) but her boyfriend Peter Foster was of an entirely different stripe altogether. He was a convicted fraudster.

Tensions flared in Downing Street as the information Cherie provided Alastair Campbell to give the press was incomplete. When her hairdresser objected to the aggressive tone Campbell was taking with Cherie, Campbell snapped, ‘You mind your own business. Remember you’re just a f***ing hairdresser.’

The story died down when Cherie made an emotional television appearance and admitted that as she tried to juggle the commitments in her life, ‘some of the balls get dropped’. But ultimately what protected Cherie was the fact that a Prime Minister can sack a minister, but not his own wife.

26. The Wilson Plot, 1979

The Wilson plot isn’t just a scandal, it’s an ongoing mystery. Even now, 34 years after Harold Wilson’s resignation, trying to untangle the threads of truth from the twisted plait of paranoia, conspiracy and denial is daunting.

IT ALL began during Wilson’s second term in office, when the PM became convinced that he was being spied on by British intelligence. He would shush visitors dramatically, finger on lips, pointing at the light fittings where he believed bugs to have been planted. At the same time rumours — spread by MI5? — began to snake across the country: Wilson was a Soviet agent; the KGB assassinated Gaitskell so as to manoeuvre Wilson into power; he was an adulterer, embroiled in some unspecified but nonetheless unspeakably sordid sex scandal with his secretary. ‘There is a whispering campaign against me,’ said poor Wilson.

But the centrepiece of the Wilson plot was the great man’s conviction that there existed a secret plan to topple him. A coterie of secret agents, military generals and aristocrats, he said, had cooked up a plot to seize Heathrow, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. This done, the Queen was to read out a speech urging people to support the coup and Mountbatten was to act as interim prime minister.

So was he right? It would be easier, more reassuring, to believe that Wilson was delusional; that the first tentacles of Alzheimer’s were already spreading paranoia and confusion through his brain. Certainly, an internal inquiry into the affair under Callaghan concluded that there had been no conspiracy.

But a decade later the Wilson plot was back, lurching around zombie-like on centre stage again. A former security officer, Peter Wright, wrote a book called Spycatcher in which he confirmed all Wilson’s worst fears. Wright claimed that he and 30 other officers had been involved in the attempt to destabilise the prime minister, who they believed to have been turned by the KGB.

MI5 denied the charges vigorously and in the end Peter Wright himself appeared on Panorama and confessed that his book had been a great exaggeration. But the Wilson plot won’t die that easily. Just as the whole affair was considered buried, in 2006 others involved told BBC journalists that there was a Secret Service anti-Wilson agenda and the possibility of staging a coup was discussed.

So whom to believe? Was Wright right? Why is MI5 still so sensitive about the subject? It’s enough to induce spasms of Cold War-style anxiety in the most level-headed 21st-century pragmatist.

You can read Part Two of The Spectator’s Guide to the 50 Biggest Scandals here.


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