John Stonehouse paved the way for today’s sleazy members – only he didn’t get away with it | Catherine Bennett

His rackety life and faked death, as portrayed in a new ITV drama, seems almost quaint compared with the brazenness of MPs today

Julia Stonehouse, daughter of the late Labour MP, does not like his portrayal in ITV’s new dramatisation, Stonehouse. She says it makes his conduct, which she attributes, like her father, to a breakdown, look like “that of a hapless fool”.

You do see her point. For whatever reason, Stonehouse, played with genius by Matthew Macfadyen, appears so idiotic that it’s hard to understand how the real-life fraudster organised a convincing disappearance in Miami and, almost, a new life with his secretary lover. This administrative feat required him, while duping his family, to shift money around multiplying bank accounts and to steal – having personally deceived their widows – the identities of two prematurely dead men, prior to fraudulently obtaining passports in their names. Plus tickets, hotels, and a challenging escape to Australia.

Still, given a choice between having your late father unfairly portrayed as an occasionally sentimental buffoon and as a cunning, priapic, greedy, callous traitor and hypocrite whose ludicrous excuses fooled neither his contemporaries nor his trial judge, some children might prefer the former. Julia Stonehouse’s own book about her father includes a scene, after her mother objected to his girlfriend, Sheila Buckley, joining their post-death reunion in Australia, in which “my mother was face down on the floor and my father leaned over, grabbed her hair, and used it to bang her head up and down”. Mrs Stonehouse tried to phone for help: “He then pulled the phone cord from its socket and started beating my mother about the head with the handset. It broke, shattering on the floor. Then he put his hands around her throat and started banging her head against the wall.”

But the generosity of ITV’s creatives in omitting this and more non-comic detail pales beside the reputational benefits conferred on the Stonehouse family by the state of the current Conservative party. Only if Boris Johnson had remained prime minister, still under investigation by the privileges committee, could there have been a better time for a departed MP to have his three-quarters-forgotten scandal held up for indulgent inspection.

In comparison with MPs lately exposed and censured – yet still sitting – Stonehouse looks as vintagely droll as the period telephones that appear to such effect in ITV’s enjoyable addition to 1970s-based political satire. Admittedly, you could see his story as evidence that the lamented “chapocracy”, as Peter Hennessy has called the era before David Cameron, Johnson, Liz Truss and their creatures all prospered, wasn’t as noble as all that. Stonehouse was jailed for seven years. But given Johnson’s legacy, Stonehouse’s fraudulent attempts to fix his finances are ethically no worse, you might think, than massive indebtedness to a donor or taking a stipend from a company in exchange for covert lobbying. The current punishment for the former being nonexistent; for the latter a fleeting suspension.

Staging his death was of course a distinct low. His public love triangle no better. Then again, so much Stonehouse-like behaviour is now forgiven or positively normalised at Westminster that his recognition as a role model seems long overdue. As seen in this far from comprehensive list of his achievements, Stonehouse could claim to be just as inspirational a figure, for MPs, as Winston Churchill.

Adulterously shagging a co-worker over 20 years his junior? Thanks to Johnson, Stonehouse’s practice is now acceptable to the point of senior staff being asked to seek career opportunities for the favourite.

Neglecting constituents? Today, Johnson calls this a career “hiatus”. Matt Hancock said the paid time away eating unusual offal would show everyone his “human side”.

Drunken sex with prostitutes on fact-finding tours? In Stonehouse, this is hilariously depicted in the former Czechoslovakia. Last month, a Politico investigation concluded that his successors had been “using parliamentary trips abroad as an opportunity for the covert use of sex workers and for raucous, excessive drinking”.

National security? In the 70s, Stonehouse seems to been content visiting his Soviet contacts, as opposed to publicly courting them. By 2015, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the then London mayor Boris Johnson felt able to welcome his patron and friend, the ex-KGB agent’s son, Evgeny Lebedev, along with a known Putin ally, Mikhail Piotrovsky, stipulating that the pair should skip security at City Hall. Piotrovsky, who still runs the Hermitage Museum, compares its outreach work to the invasion of Ukraine, “a kind of special operation”.

Absence of shame? Stonehouse should take credit for originating while he was on bail (and Johnson still in prep school) the now established Tory practice of not resigning. It’s standing on this giant’s shoulders that an offending MP defies pariah status, preferring to accuse his accusers. Owen Paterson, responsible for “an egregious act of paid advocacy”, hopes to burden the European court of human rights with various gripes against the standards committee. Meanwhile, as Johnson’s supporters push for his de-resignation, we find David Warburton among the seven MPs now sitting as independents. Pending further judgment, he was recently censured for not declaring a loan from a Russian-born businessman, Roman Joukovski. (The money was to help Warburton buy a £1.2m vicarage to use as an Airbnb.)

Mental ill-health as the excuse for misconduct? What once sounded novel – Stonehouse pioneeringly claimed to have committed “psychiatric suicide” – has become a relatively familiar tactic, notably employed by Jamie Wallace MP after he fled the scene of a car crash. The judge was unconvinced.

If the dramatised Stonehouse scandal finally seemed a bit tame, it was never going to help that, as Hennessy has suggested and proliferating misconduct claims confirm, “the current political environment has tended to elevate ‘chaps’ who are less inclined to be ‘good’”. That he’d have broken all the Nolan principles introduced after his lifetime would put Stonehouse, today, in exalted political company.

True, his fake death and attempted disappearance have yet to be emulated by even his most degenerate parliamentary soulmates. Pity.

  • Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

• The headline and subheading of this article were amended on 7 January 2023 because in an early version they suggested John Stonehouse was a Tory MP. The columnist did not describe Stonehouse as a Tory, nor misunderstand his party affiliation, but the detail that he was a Labour politician has also been added to avoid any possible confusion.

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Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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