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The Profumo Affair was a 1963 British political scandal named after John Profumo, Secretary of State for War. His affair with Christine Keeler, the reputed mistress of an alleged Soviet spy, followed by his lying in the House of Commons when he was questioned about it, forced the resignation of Profumo and damaged the reputation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's government. Macmillan himself resigned a few months later because of ill health.
In the early 1960s, Profumo was the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government and was married to actress Valerie Hobson. In 1961, Profumo met Christine Keeler, a London good-time girl or, according to the newspapers, a call girl, at a house party at Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire mansion owned by Lord Astor. Many years later Profumo would claim, in discussion with his son, David, that he had met Keeler previously at a night club in London called Murray's and "probably had a drink with her." Also present at the Cliveden party were Profumo's wife and the fashionable osteopath and party arranger for the aristocracy, Dr Stephen Ward, a long-standing acquaintance of Keeler. The relationship with Keeler lasted only a few weeks before Profumo ended it. However, rumours about the affair became public in 1962, as did the allegation that Keeler had also had a relationship with Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Given Profumo's position in the government and with the Cold War at its height, the potential ramifications in terms of national security were grave, and this, along with the adulterous nature of Profumo's relationship with Keeler, quickly elevated the affair into a public scandal.
In 1962, Keeler became involved in an altercation with her former live-in lover Johnny Edgecombe. When she announced the end of their relationship, a confrontation followed 10 days before Christmas 1962. Edgecombe attempted to force his way into Stephen Ward's flat where Keeler was staying and fired several shots at the doorlock. Meanwhile, Keeler had become involved with a Jamaican jazz pianist named Aloysius "Lucky" Gordon. When that relationship ended Gordon attacked her with an axe and held her hostage for two days. Keeler turned to Edgecombe for help and in the ensuing fight between him and Gordon, the latter received a knife wound to his face. Fearful of reprisals from Gordon, Edgecombe asked Keeler to help him find a solicitor so that he could turn himself in. She refused and instead told him that she intended to give evidence against Edgecombe in court for wounding Gordon. As a result of her refusal, Edgecombe hatched a plot to murder Keeler. Three months later, when she failed to turn up in court for Edgecombe's trial, previous press suspicions boiled over and the affair became front page news with headlines like "WAR MINISTER SHOCK".
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In March 1963, Profumo stated to the House of Commons that there was "no impropriety whatsoever" in his relationship with Keeler and that he would issue writs for libel and slander if the allegations were repeated outside the House. (Within the House, such allegations are protected by Parliamentary privilege.) However, in June, Profumo confessed that he had misled the House and lied in his testimony and on 5 June, he resigned his Cabinet position, as well as his Privy Council and Parliamentary membership.
Peter Wright, in his autobiography Spycatcher, relates that he was working at the British counter-intelligence agency MI5 at the time and was assigned to question Keeler on security matters. He conducted a fairly lengthy interview and found Keeler to be poorly educated and not well informed on current events, very much the "party girl" described in the press at the time. However, in the course of questioning her, the subject of nuclear missiles came up, and Keeler, on her own, used the term "nuclear payload" in relation to the missiles. This alerted Wright's suspicions. According to Wright, in the very early 1960s in Britain, the term "nuclear payload" was not in general use by the public, and even among those who kept up with such things, the term was not commonly heard. For a young woman with such limited knowledge to casually use the term was more than suspicious. In fact, Wright came away convinced that at the very least there had been an attempt by the Soviet attaché (perhaps through Stephen Ward) to use Keeler to get classified information from Profumo.
Lord Denning released the government's official report on 25 September 1963, and, one month later, the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, resigned on the grounds of ill health, which had apparently been exacerbated by the scandal. He was replaced by the Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Home, who renounced his title to become Sir Alec Douglas-Home. However, the change of leader failed to save the Conservative Party's place in government; they lost the general election to Harold Wilson's Labour a year later.
Stephen Ward was prosecuted in August for living off the immoral earnings of prostitution (Miss Keeler had paid for the telephone calls she made whilst using Ward's flat, using the money she got from her rich male 'acquaintances') but he was found dying in his flat before sentencing. The official verdict was that he committed suicide. He was defended by James Burge QC (on whom John Mortimer's character of Rumpole of the Bailey was partly based). Keeler was found guilty on unrelated perjury charges and was sentenced to nine months in prison. Profumo died on 9 March 2006.
The relationship between a senior politician and a prostitute caught the public imagination and led to the release of a number of films and documentaries detailing the event. The Danish film The Keeler Affair was released in 1963 followed in 1989 by the British film Scandal. The musical A Model Girl premiered at The Greenwich Theatre on 30 January 2007. In theatre Hugh Whitemore's play A Letter of Resignation, first staged at the Comedy Theatre in October 1997, dramatises the occasion when Harold Macmillan, staying with friends in Scotland, received a political bombshell, a letter of resignation from Profumo, his war minister. Edward Fox portrayed Macmillan.  Andrew Lloyd Webber's Stephen Ward, a musical revolving around the Profumo Affair, is expected to premiere on the West End in December, 2013.