In review: John Stonehouse, My Father by Julia Stonehouse

“It’s a fantasy most of us have at some point,” said Blake Morrison in The Guardian: “to fake our death and fetch up in a distant country”.

In November 1974, the Labour MP John Stonehouse left his clothes on a Miami beach and then caught a flight to Australia using a false passport. His businesses were going under, rumours were growing that he was a spy, and he was having an affair with his secretary. “All of which led him to seek refuge in a new identity.”

Alas for him, Lord Lucan had disappeared a short while earlier, and when a mysterious Englishman turned up in Melbourne, someone tipped off the police – who found the supposedly dead MP instead. Returned to the UK, he was imprisoned for fraud and deception. Now his daughter has written a memoir in which she argues that Stonehouse, who died in 1988, was a decent man who has been much maligned.

Her defence relies on “Escher-like circular logic”, said Craig Brown in The Spectator. Julia doesn’t deny her father’s “crimes and misdemeanours”, which ranged from identity theft and embezzlement to the violent assault of his wife, Barbara. She argues that they were so “out of character” for this good man, they can only have been the result of “a mental breakdown, brought on by the purity of his ideals”.

Similarly, she accepts that her father took cash from the Czechs, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, but suggests he wasn’t a traitor, because the secrets he sold were not useful. It’s understandable that she should want to exonerate her father, but I doubt her attempts to explain away his deceit and folly will convince anyone.

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Stonehouse was “a successful love rat but second-division politician, fourth-class traitor [and] bungling fraudster. I felt uncomfortable reading his squalid story, because he is best forgotten.”

Icon Books 416pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

John Stonehouse book

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