John Stonehouse, My Father by Julia Stonehouse review – the story of the runaway MP

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

It’s a fantasy most of us have at some point: to fake our death and fetch up in a distant country, under a different name, to begin a new life. When the Labour MP John Stonehouse attempted just that, in November 1974 – leaving his clothes in a Miami beach cabana to make it look as if he’d drowned, before arriving as “Joseph Markham” in Australia – his success was short-lived. Initially mistaken by police in Melbourne for Lord Lucan, who had disappeared after murdering his nanny two weeks earlier, he was eventually brought back to the UK to face trial on charges of fraud. Hounded by the press as a spy, traitor, embezzler and adulterer, he spent three years in prison and on his release survived for less than a decade before dying of heart problems at 62. Now his daughter Julia has set out to rescue his reputation.

“Mad not bad” is her premise. Paranoid, sleep-deprived and dosed up on a cocktail of Mogadon and Mandrax, her father had been behaving oddly for months before his disappearance. The companies he owned were going under and the dodgy contracts he struck to rescue them made things worse. The growing rumours that he’d been passing secret information to the Czechs cost him a ministerial position and were a threat to Harold Wilson’s government. All of which led him to seek refuge in a new identity: “Being Mr Markham was a safety valve, a release, a lifesaver” – a persona which became more real to him than John Stonehouse.

A nervous breakdown doesn’t preclude cold-hearted calculation, so Julia Stonehouse contends. Though she finds it “terrible” that her father sought out two recently widowed women in his constituency, a Mrs Markham and Mrs Mildoon, in order to forge passports in their husbands’ names, she “can only attribute it to madness”. Likewise, his steady transfer of large sums into bank accounts in the name of Markham, in the months before he vanished was an “insane” plan. As for several lucrative life insurance policies he took out that year, this wasn’t a scam to benefit his family (who couldn’t have claimed on them anyway, in the absence of a body) but a product of insecurity after his car was blown up by the IRA. In short, John Stonehouse was a good man and anything less than saintly that he did (such as physically attacking his wife Barbara) was “out of character”.

The Stonehouse family at home in 1969
The Stonehouse family at home in 1969. Photograph: Chris Wood/Getty Images

Julia is even forgiving of him for the agony he put his family through during the five weeks when they thought he was dead. She’s also protective of Sheila Buckley, the secretary he’d been having an affair with for five years, who was barely older than Julia herself. A less understanding daughter might resent the pain Sheila caused Barbara, who later divorced John, leaving Sheila free to marry him and have his child. But Julia believed her father when he said he loved two women at once – and the manic period when both were in Australia caring for him seems to bear that out. Above all, she’s keen to absolve Sheila from the accusation that she was in on the plot for him to disappear and for her to join him once the coast was clear.

Any father would want a daughter like Julia – stubbornly loyal, tenacious in spotting errors, denouncing lies

The guilty parties named in the book are numerous – the Labour party for deserting Stonehouse, lawyers and judges for failing him, the cold war defector Josef Frolik for unjustly accusing him of being a Czech agent. But guiltiest of all are the media, for peddling lies that continue to this day, including his alleged theft of £600,000 from the Bangladesh fund he’d helped to set up. Their most damaging charge was espionage, an accusation repeated by the historian Christopher Andrew in his book The Defence of the Realm. Julia has examined the 1,000-page file that the Czech secret service kept on her father. They claimed to have recruited him even before he became minister for aviation, when discussions took place about the sale of DC10 planes to a Czech airline. But she finds no evidence that he fed them intelligence. Either the meetings never happened or the agents exaggerated his input in order to justify their existence. Just like the press, she concludes, they were only in it for the money – whereas Stonehouse had no need of petty cash payments and, as a rabid anti-communist, no ideological motive for handing over secrets.

Any father would want a daughter like Julia – stubbornly loyal, exhaustive in her research, tenacious in spotting errors, indignant in denouncing lies. The problem is that makes her case read so repetitively and one-sidedly that the reader feels battered – almost to the point of sympathising with Stonehouse’s opponents. She wants to serve her father and she does. But a book half as long would have served him better.

• John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP is published by Icon (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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