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Obituary: John Profumo

John Profumo
Profumo's redemption involved tireless charity work

John Profumo, who was at the centre of one of the UK's most famous political scandals, has died at the age of 91.

John Profumo's public life was dramatically split into two parts: disgrace and redemption.

Nearly 40 years after he misled the House of Commons and helped bring down the Macmillan government, the former politician was a dedicated charity worker, for whom his friend Lord Longford "felt more admiration than all the men I've known in my lifetime".

21 May 1963 was the date of Mr Profumo's own journey on the road to Damascus. That was the day the then Secretary for War addressed the House of Commons and stressed there had been no impropriety in his relations with a woman called Christine Keeler.

Unfortunate liaison

In fact, Mr Profumo had met Miss Keeler two years previously at Cliveden, the home of Lord Astor, and embarked on an affair.

Christine Keeler
Christine Keeler helped "bring down government"
A government minister compromised by a love scandal was nothing unprecedented, and has happened since, but this liaison proved particularly ill-judged.

Christine Keeler was a high class call girl who, under the auspices of her social-climbing Svengali Stephen Ward, had infiltrated some of the higher echelons of London society.

Unfortunately for Mr Profumo, one of her acquaintances was the Soviet military attache, Eugene Ivanov.

Wife's loyalty

Although an investigation later established that fiercely patriotic John Profumo had never surrendered national secrets in his conversations with Keeler, their liaison provided a heady media cocktail of sex and security, and Mr Profumo's government days were numbered.

Profumo with his wife Valerie Hobson
Lifelong devotion: Profumo with his wife Valerie
He explained that he had misled the House to protect his family. In fact, when he confessed his infidelity to his wife, actress Valerie Hobson, during a trip to Venice, she made it clear where her loyalty lay. They would return to London, she said, to face the music together.

Mr Profumo's fall from grace over one shameful episode was described by Harold Macmillan as "a great tragedy", for this was a man whose skills could have taken him to the top of the Conservative Party.

Kept regrets to himself

Graced with an Italian ancestry, a family fortune and the title of Baron which he never used, John Profumo, known to all his friends as Jack, was educated at Harrow and Oxford. In 1940. aged 25, he entered the Commons after winning a by-election at Kettering and becoming the youngest member of the House.

It was a tumultuous time and, following the Anglo-French withdrawal from Narvik, Profumo - an Army officer - was among a number of Conservative MPs to vote against prime minister Neville Chamberlain, in a move which paved the way for Winston Churchill to enter Downing Street.

Profumo enjoyed a "good war", rising to the rank of brigadier, but lost Kettering in the Labour election landslide of 1945.

Having re-entered the Commons in 1950 as member for Stratford-on-Avon in 1950, he held a series of ministerial posts, most notably Minister for Foreign Affairs. Then, in July 1960, he was made Secretary of State for War.

John Profumo on duty as War Secretary
In 1960 Macmillan made Profumo his War Secretary
But if he had regrets about his curtailed career, after May 1963, Mr Profumo kept them to himself. Instead, he dedicated his energies to helping the poor and disadvantaged in London's East End.

Within days of his political decline, he turned up at the refuge centre Toynbee Hall and asked to help with the washing up.

"One of our national heroes"

He stayed for nearly 40 years, used his still intact political skills to raise huge funds, and expanded the charity's activities to include social programmes and youth training. His wife, too, gave her time to helping others, working until her death in 1998 for the leprosy charity Lepra.

In 1975, John Profumo received a CBE for his services to charity. And 20 years later, Margaret Thatcher, who called him "one of our national heroes", invited him to her 70th birthday dinner, and seated him next to the Queen.

Profumo with a resident of Toynbee Hall
To the residents of Toynbee Hall, he was "a saint"
His rehabilitation was complete. Lady Thatcher said then: "It's time to forget the Keeler business. His has been a very good life."

The 1989 film Scandal and later Keeler's autobiography kept the Profumo affair alive in the public imagination. However, for four decades after his downfall, the beleaguered protagonist always maintained a dignified silence.

He always judged his own actions harshly, but by his friends, peers and society, John Profumo had been long since forgiven.

Former Tory minister Profumo dies
10 Mar 06 |  UK Politics


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