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The establishment was always covering up for Bob Boothby

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

Just after John Pearson finished writing The Profession of Violence, his celebrated biography of the Krays, both his and his agent’s officeswere broken into. Letters from Lord Boothby to Ronnie Kray had disappeared, as had a copy of the book’s manuscript. Pearson then received a telephone call from the high-powered lawyer Lord Goodman, who warned him that the book libelled Boothby. A subsequent phone call from Goodman to Pearson’s publisher led to the book’s contract being cancelled.

Mr Fixit, as Goodman was unaffectionately known, already had form as far as Boothby and the Krays were concerned, having in 1964 put pressure on the Sunday Mirror not only to retract a story about the relationship between a ‘prominent peer’ and a London gangster but to pay the peer a staggering £40,000 by way of apology. Had this been a story about the bacon of a rogue politician being saved by a bullying and unscrupulous lawyer, it might have been a minor matter; but Goodman was merely one participant in a major cover-up of Boothby’s indiscretions that involved both government and opposition parties, MI5 and the Metropolitan Police.

The Mirror’s mistake was to have suggested that there was a homosexual relationship between the peer and the gangster, whereas Kray was instead acting as a procurer of young roughs for Boothby, whose sexual tastes he shared. Boothby was a controversial but hugely popular figure, both as a politician and a radio and television personality, but in 1964 homosexuality was still illegal. He had a public reputation as a ladies’ man, but was in fact vigorously and recklessly bisexual and had been introduced to the Krays by a young cat burglar with whom he was having an affair. MI5 had been keeping tabs on him, but even an article in the National Socialist in 1963, which referred to ‘one of our most frequently televised peers’ visiting a male brothel in west London, seems not to have made Boothby any less careless.

The Mirror story was more serious, and in order to kill it Boothby, instructed by Goodman, wrote a letter to the Times in which he insisted that he was not, and had never been, homosexual and that he had met Ronnie Kray on only a couple of occasions, merely to discuss business matters. These were outright lies, while a statement by the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson that, contrary to what the Mirror had claimed, he had not ordered an investigation into a sexual relationship between a peer and an underworld figure was true only so far as it went, since the police were indeed investigating the Krays, and had Boothby on their radar.

Given that Goodman was well known for acting on behalf of the Labour party, his intervention in a potential Tory scandal seems puzzling. However, Harold Wilson, who was widely tipped to replace Macmillan as prime minister in the forthcoming general election, knew that any investigation of Boothby would soon bring up the name of Tom Driberg, sometime Labour MP and long-serving member of the party’s national executive. Driberg had been seen with Boothby picking up rent boys at a dog track, and was, like him, a frequent guest at Ronnie Kray’s sex parties.

Had this simply been a story about how Boothby and Driberg were saved from public disgrace, it would still be fascinating, though not terribly important; but in the process, police and press investigations into the Krays were stymied for several years, allowing the twins to strengthen their hold on London and murder several people. Daniel Smith further argues that the cover-up was damaging in the long term because it ‘set a precedent for handling future sex scandals’, including those involving Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith.

In detailing the cover-up and its repercussions, Smith has drawn on many new and original sources. He usefully places it in the context of the Vassall and Profumo affairs, which had already catastrophically undermined public confidence in the establishment and made everyone involved determined to avoid another political scandal. His book is both lively and engrossing, and provides the clearest and most comprehensive account yet of this extraordinary saga.

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