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John Stonehouse and the politicians who went to prison

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at twighlight
Some politicians have abused their position of power inside the Houses of Parliament | Image: Shutterstock

They held some of the highest offices in the land and were supposed to exemplify establishment respectability… until they dramatically fell from grace. Meet three British politicians who broke the law and found themselves behind bars.

Jeffrey Archer

When Jeffrey Archer was sent to prison in 2001, he was already a rather notorious and colourful figure in British politics. In 1969, aged 29, he became one of Britain’s youngest MPs but was forced to resign in 1974 after a catastrophic investment left him heavily in debt. Archer promptly bounced back with a new career as a bestselling novelist, and in 1985 he was appointed deputy chairman of the Conservative Party – a controversial decision, with one senior figure warning Margaret Thatcher that Archer was an “accident waiting to happen”.

His tenure ended the following year thanks to tabloid revelations linking him with an escort named Monica Coghlan. In 1987, Archer successfully sued the Daily Star for alleging he’d paid Coghlan for sex in a Mayfair hotel and was awarded £500,000 in damages. Cut to 1999, and Archer looked set for a return to frontline politics when he was selected as the Tory candidate for London Mayor. Then, everything came crashing down when a former friend alleged he’d committed perjury during the Daily Star libel case.

In 2001, the very year Archer starred in his own stage play about a man on trial for murder, he found himself in the dock for real. Taking place just weeks after Monica Coghlan was tragically killed in a road collision, the trial saw Archer’s former friend testify that the ex-MP had asked him to provide a false alibi for the night he was alleged to have been with Coghlan.

Archer was eventually found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and received a four-year jail term. He was also required to repay the Daily Star the £500,000, along with well over a £1 million more to cover their legal costs.

Jonathan Aitken

Another prominent Conservative who served time for perjury is Jonathan Aitken. The son of MP Sir William Aitken and the great-nephew of newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, Aitken was educated at Eton and Oxford and looked set to enjoy a life of success.

Dashing, charismatic, and ambitious, he was elected to parliament in 1974 and also made a fortune as a private businessman. He had a relationship with Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, and was later tipped as a potential leader of the Conservatives. His Westminster home became known as a buzzing hub for journalists, politicians, and big money schmoozers, with the likes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger among his guests. During his prime, Aitken was described by one fellow Tory as “not so much gilded as pure gold”.

Things came undone in 1995, when journalists at the Guardian and Granada Television made claims of impropriety, including an allegation that Aitken had breached ministerial rules by allowing a Saudi businessman to pay for his £1,000 stay at the Paris Ritz a few years before. An enraged Aitken made a now-infamous public statement vowing to “cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth”.

Instead, it was Aitken who saw fortunes collapse. In 1999, he was given an 18-month sentence after pleading guilty to committing perjury and perverting the course of justice during his failed libel action against the media organisations. Aitken converted to Christianity in prison and went on to study theology after his release. He’s since become a Church of England priest.

John Stonehouse

The story of John Stonehouse, a cabinet minister under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, almost defies belief. Stonehouse, who became an MP in 1957, was a staunch trade unionist noted for his boldly progressive politics. Indeed, he made headlines in 1959 when he gave a speech slamming white minority rule in what was then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), imploring his Black audience to “hold your heads high and behave as though this country belonged to you”.

During the 1960s he held senior political positions, including a stint as Postmaster General. However, he found himself in dire financial straits in the early 1970s, racking up six-figures worth of debt. Stonehouse decided the only way out of his predicament was to fake his death and live incognito.

He put the plan into action in November 1974, leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach in Florida to make it look like he’d drowned. Obituaries were duly published, and his wife assumed she was now a widow. Meanwhile Stonehouse – who took on new identities including that of a dead constituent – started a new life in Australia with his mistress.

The deception didn’t last long. Being a natty Englishman transferring large sums of money in Australia, he soon drew attention to himself, coming under police surveillance. It was initially thought he might be Lord Lucan, who by coincidence had done his own disappearing act a few weeks before Stonehouse’s ‘death’. When he was arrested, Stonehouse had to pull down his trousers to prove he wasn’t Lucan, since the runaway lord had a scar on his thigh.

Stonehouse was deported back to the UK and was eventually given seven years for fraud. But the Stonehouse saga didn’t quite finish there. In 1980, a defector from the Eastern Bloc told British authorities that Stonehouse had been a paid spy for Communist Czechoslovakia while a government minister. Rumours of espionage had previously dogged Stonehouse, but this was confirmation of his duplicity.

When confronted with this information, then-PM Margaret Thatcher agreed to cover the story up due to a lack of concrete evidence and a wish to avoid an embarrassing Cold War scandal. Stonehouse was therefore able to live a post-prison life as a minor celebrity, writing novels and appearing on TV shows. He died – this time for real – in 1988.