Friday, 23 October 2015

Gangsters, politicians and mutually assured destruction

Cahal Milmo's feature in the Indy today revives one of the great hidden scandals of the 1960s and the solution to a puzzle raised by it. A photograph of gangster Ronnie Kray flanked by Conservative politician Robert Boothby and a young man named Leslie Holt, who was the lover of both of them, came into the hands of Cecil King, chairman of IPC which owned the Daily and Sunday Mirror newspapers in the early 1960s. Homosexuality was then illegal in the UK. Lord Boothby, while no longer a contender for high office, was still a very popular broadcaster and publicist for the Conservatives. (I can attest to his charm as a regular contributor to BBC radio's Any Questions? programme.)  It would therefore be a considerable blow to the Conservative government to have exposed Boothby's bisexuality, not to mention the Kray connection.

King published a teaser in the Sunday Mirror, without naming names or publishing the photo, then abruptly pulled back. Even after the existence of the photograph became known, the reason for King's change of mind remained a mystery. One assumed at the time that his drift towards the Conservative party had already begun and his concern for the future of the party overcame his instincts as a newspaperman.

Much later, it was revealed that it was a case of mutually assured destruction: the Labour party had as much to fear from Boothby's "outing" as the Conservatives. John Pearson, in publicising the 1995 paperback edition of his book about the Krays, explained. Boothby's friend and companion in many of his sexual escapades was Labour MP Tom Driberg, who was on the party's national executive. Exposure of Boothby would inevitably lead to a reciprocal exposure of Driberg, hitherto untouchable, with dire effects on the Labour Party. (I wonder, however, whether it was Driberg who tipped Private Eye off about the photograph. He was a regular contributor to the Eye under the nom-de-guerre Tiresias and would have known of the Krays' love of being photographed, by David Bailey among others.) When Labour high command learned of King's plans they were therefore far from grateful and persuaded Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror, who had been away when King had the teaser printed, to spike the story. Labour's legal heavyweights then extracted from IPC an apology and huge damages, which in turn acted as a deterrent to other papers running with it.

All the time, the intelligence services knew of these connections while the general public (outside the immediate circles of the people concerned) was blissfully unaware. Pearson drew the conclusion that the ruling class looked after its own and Milmo implicitly seems to accept this. An interesting question is: would the Liberals, under the unimpeachable Jo Grimond, have benefited from the scandal breaking? Jeremy Thorpe, later to be embroiled in his own same-sex affair, was already a member of parliament, but does not seem to have been linked with Boothby or Driberg and was certainly more discreet.

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