Craig Brown

The disappearing man: who was the real John Stonehouse?

The Labour MP who faked his death in 1974 was convicted of fraud. But was he also a spy — or, as his daughter Julia maintains, just a disillusioned idealist?

Smooth and enigmatic as ever — John Stonehouse at his desk [Alamy]

November 1974 was the month to disappear. On the 7th, Lord Lucan went missing, and a fortnight later John Stonehouse MP dis-appeared from a beach in Miami. Lucan was never found, so remains prominent in our national mythology. Nothing endures like a mystery. Stonehouse, on the other hand, was discovered in Melbourne six weeks later, living under an assumed name. His vanishing trick, so carefully rehearsed, had unravelled — partly due to Lucan, as it happened. Having been alerted to a suspicious Briton by a beady bank clerk, the Australian police thought he might be Lucan. Their first act after arresting their suspect was to lift his trouser leg to look for the missing earl’s telltale scar.

Stonehouse had long had a tendency to vanish. In a diary entry written five years earlier, Barbara Castle complained that, just when she needed him, Stonehouse had‘disappeared’. Eventually he was tracked down, and Castle told Roy Hattersley not to let him out of his sight. Stonehouse remained, she wrote in the same entry, ‘smooth and enigmatic as ever’.

There was something ghostly about him, something not-quite-there, as if he might put on a fresh identity as others might put on a new suit.

I first met him in the House of Commons, after he had returned from Australia under police escort to face trial on 21 different charges of theft, fraud and deception. As an ambitious teenager reading drama at Bristol University, I had contacted him, suggesting I write a play about him. By this time he had left the Labour party, and was identifying as a victim of the Establishment. In his resignation letter to the leader of the house, he explained that ‘the long traumas I suffered were caused by a deep disillusionment with the state of English society and the complete frustration of the ideals I have pursued in my political and business life’.

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