Matthew Parris

A blackmail plot. A smear. Or was it both.

A blackmail plot. A smear. Or was it both.
English politician Edward Heath making an address at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, in front of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)|English politician Edward Heath making an address at the Tory Party conference i
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Like many of the best thrillers the Heath Caper affair involves sex, spies and blackmail, and an array of possible resolutions that are all eminently plausible yet cannot all be true. Or can they? I have something of a personal window into the worlds this story touches.

It is an old story, that has just resurfaced — with a new twist — in a radio documentary and Sunday Times article by the BBC’s security correspondent, Gordon Corera. The allegation at its centre was first published in a 1970s book by Josef Frolik, a defector from the Czech secret service. Frolik claimed that his spy colleagues had, years earlier, prepared a homosexual honeytrap for a rising young Tory politician, Edward Heath, in the form of a personal invitation from a handsome (and sexually versatile) young Czech organist, to visit and play the famous organ of the Church of St James in Prague. But Heath (claimed Frolik) was tipped off by MI5 at the last moment, and cancelled the visit.

Corera, however, has established that Frolik’s alleged source — who was indeed in Czech intelligence, did spend time in London, probably did ‘run’ informers, and is still alive — emphatically denies arranging to ensnare Heath. So where does the story come from? Frolik’s British publisher told Corera he thought Heath-hating elements on the Tory right might have concocted it and insinuated it into Frolik’s book (published, in the event, just after Margaret Thatcher had toppled Heath). After the book’s publication, and when confronted publicly with the allegation, Heath brushed if off; and his former principal private secretary, Lord (Robert) Armstrong, who had discussed the allegation with his master, told Corera that Heath was dismissive of the entrapment story. The finger (suggests Corera) points back toward the Tory right, including a spy turned Thatcherite Tory candidate, George Kennedy Young, and another former spy and close supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Stephen Hastings MP. 

I remember Stephen Hastings. I remember Ted Heath, and his obsessive, secretive and near-paranoid enemies on the Tory right. And I remember what was probably an Eastern-bloc attempt to turn me (a trainee diplomat) in the front seat of a green Alfa Sud, struggling to resist the attractions of a darkly handsome young Bulgarian attaché (mercifully with bad breath) somewhere near the Cromwell Road. I wish I’d kept his later postcard from Sofia, but I handed it in to the FCO security people.

The Bulgarian story I’ve told often enough in print and will not repeat. But it persuades me that the notion of the Czechs trying such tactics on Edward Heath when younger is not fanciful. I’d be surprised if it was never considered: a risk-free fishing expedition from the Czech viewpoint. In the right circumstances, and if the young Czech organist had been Ted’s type, and if Ted had not smelt a rat, it’s possible that the MP might have been seduced though (in my view) out of the question that Heath, blackmailed, would have turned traitor. He would have gone straight to the security services.

I have no doubt Ted was gay. Look at Tory Pride and Prejudice by Heath’s former private secretary, Michael McManus, who shares my confidence — though the way Leveson is going it could soon be illegal to discuss this.

At the time I was only a clerk to the opposition leader, under the stairs at Westminster after Margaret Thatcher had ousted Heath. I sometimes picked up the sniff of things, but was never an insider. For what it’s worth, my impression follows.

When Thatcher, a relative outsider, took a long shot at the leadership, she was supported by a small cadre of right-wing Tory men who were loyal to the point of fanaticism. Thatcher, shunned by the party establishment (and unloved by them even after she had won) in those days needed and appreciated the help of the rightist fringes. She did not and never would disown early loyalists. But there was something a bit weird, a bit funny, about some of them, and I think she came to realise it. I will not name them and I cannot put my finger on it, but they sort of skulked around her tent. We, her established office staff, were under some kind of vague impression (never stated) that we were to steer clear; and that they were a nuisance: rather like those sweaty former terrorists who join the palace guard after their rebel leader has won the crown — glorious in their way, but a bit of an embarrassment in the changed circumstances.

And they absolutely detested Ted Heath. The reasons? Europe; his failure to beat the unions; local government reorganisation (don’t laugh: the destruction of English counties was an aching wound); the ‘purge’ of anti-European parliamentary candidates… oh, the issues now fade but at the time they seemed to form themselves into spears encircling a single figure: Ted, spawn of Satan, vortex of all Evil, scourge of the Blessed Margaret. ‘The queer will be dethroned,’ an alleged letter to Hastings from Young, printed in Private Eye, had earlier said.

This group, or elements within it, were certainly capable of crediting and spreading rumours about Ted’s blackmailability. But would they simply have invented them?

It’s believable but I do not believe it. The truth is more likely to be the smudged and messy business the truth so often is. My guess is that Frolik’s story was a grotesque distortion of the germ of an idea that really was considered by his old friends in Czech Intelligence; that Frolik’s new friends in British Intelligence got hold of it, and whispering started among their friends on the Tory right. Exaggerated further and finally re-cycled back into Frolik’s book (which was vetted by MI5) the whispers had mutated from a ‘How about…?’ between Czech spies into a ‘Ted was almost turned!’ between British right-wingers. ‘Rumour is fleet of foot, and swift are her wings,’ wrote Virgil. He was right.