Boothby was a sexual athlete with women and men - an indulgence which put him in debt to the Kray twins

Unmasking of a libertine lord

With a wealth of original material, Daniel Smith meets all the requirements of high-class popular history

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Beware the chancer. Bob Boothby had it all, or nearly all: a comfortable upbringing, good looks, an acerbic wit, a mellifluous voice and an infectious booming laugh. As an MP, and from 1958 as a life peer who spoke up for good causes, he was a star of radio, television and the lecture circuit.

The Peer and the Gangster: A Very British Cover-up, By Daniel Smith
History Press, £20

As a cub reporter in the early 1960s I met him briefly in the BBC Lime Grove studios, where he was holding court in the hospitality room. With the drink flowing as fast as the conversation, he ranged far and wide over the political topics of the day — a virtuoso performance that had us wondering why he was not holding down a ministerial brief or even leading the Tory Party. But then we only saw one side of the Boothby phenomenon. What we did not know, but were soon to find out from the Fleet Street grapevine, was that the noble lord was as dodgy as hell.

Unreliable, to put it mildly, in matters financial, Boothby was also a sexual athlete who needed constant practice with women and men. It was an indulgence that led him to the rough trade and put him in debt to the Kray twins, East End racketeers given to menace with violence which did not preclude shooting a rival in cold blood.

The Boothby cover-up is testimony to the rottenness then prevalent in British public life

Told in riveting detail, Daniel Smith’s revelations of this murky episode in British politics go a long way to explaining Boothby’s masochistic compulsion to play against the odds while relying, with some justification, on friends in high places to get him out of a hole. With Harold Macmillan’s wife Dorothy as his mistress, an affair that had been kept under wraps for 30 years, maybe he really did believe he was fireproof.

The big test came in 1964 when the Sunday Mirror got hold of photographs showing Boothby in cahoots with Ronnie Kray. In the published story there were no pictures and names were withheld. Instead readers were told that “a prominent peer” and a “leading thug in the London underworld” were under police investigation. Further revelations were promised and, indeed, there was much to reveal including the procurement of rentboys to satisfy Boothby’s prodigious sexual appetite. And then — nothing. With Arnold Goodman, the obscenely overweight lawyer known as Mr Fixit, to the fore, a compliant police commissioner and nods and winks from power centres in Westminster, the squeeze was put on the Mirror with the result that Boothby was given an abject apology for bringing his reputation into disrepute and £40,000 compensation. A windfall, as Daniel Smith reveals, that had Kray demanding his share.

Pre-dating the Jeremy Thorpe trial by 15 years, the Boothby cover-up is testimony to the rottenness then prevalent in British public life. With a wealth of original material and having talked with the surviving actors in the drama, Daniel Smith meets all the requirements of high-class popular history.

The second and only other time I met Boothby was close to the end of his life. He was at Waterloo Station, a depleted figure, frail and old. I held his stick while he fumbled for his ticket. When he thanked me, the charm was still there and the voice was unmistakable. And, yes, I was sorry for him and felt sad thinking about what might have been.

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