Sex, lies, and espionage are the ingredients of any juicy political scandal. The Profumo Affair, a sex scandal that rocked British politics in the early 1960s and led to the downfall of the Conservative party’s reign over Parliament, has these three elements in abundance. It's a major plot line in the final episode of season 2, episode 10 of The Crown. But instead of learning about the Profumo Affair through the governmental lens, we see how the royal family (cough cough, Prince Philip) may have been involved.
The trouble begins when Philip hurts his neck, and visits a fancy Class-A osteopath named Stephen Ward. Ward casually suggests Philip attend one of his get-togethers to let loose. It’s been years since Philip’s wild days, and he finds the prospect of a party hard to resist. Before deciding whether he'll attend, Philip spots a photo of a young girl on Ward's mantlepiece. "Oh, Christine," Ward says. "She'll be there."
Ward was known to mix young women like Christine Keeler, the woman in the photo, with high-ranking government officials and foreign diplomats. He thought Philip would fit right in.
What does this have to do with the Profumo Affair?
Christine Keeler went down in infamy for having a sexual relationship with a conservative cabinet minister, John Profumo, when she was 19. Profumo and Keeler met during a weekend of country partying, organized by Ward, in July 1961. At the time, Profumo held an especially high-ranking position in government: He was the Secretary of State for War. He was married to a famous film actress, Valerie Hobson, but that didn't stop him from flirting with the girl swimming naked in the Cliveden estate’s swimming pool.
That girl was Keeler, an aspiring model who was, essentially, under Stephen Ward’s “care.” Keeler lived with Ward, and he encouraged her to socialize with his friends. Profumo contacted Keeler some days after the party, and they had a brief sexual relationship before parting ways a few months later.
Profumo might have gotten away with his indulgences, had Keeler not made headlines in 1963 when her ex-boyfriend, Johnny Edgcombe, shot up her apartment door. Because the press loves a sensation, they gave Keeler ample media attention. With the spotlight on her, Keeler confirmed that she had had an affair with Profumo — and an affair with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache, during the same period.
Since Ivanov was involved, the affair escalated from a personal matter to a matter of national security. As such, Profumo had to testify before Parliament. On March 22, Profumo stood before his colleagues and denied any acquaintance with Keeler.
Profumo might have gotten away with it again, had it not been for Stephen Ward going on trial for living off illicit funds earned through prostituting Keeler and other young women — though there was no evidence of prostitution at all. In reality, the women were supported by Ward’s salaries as an osteopath and a portraitist.
Keeler was a witness during the trial, and confirmed her relationship with Profumo. There was no going back. On June 4, Profumo admitted that he had lied to Parliament. On June 5, he resigned.
What was the aftermath of the Profumo Affair?
The Profumo Affair had major reverberations in the political sphere. The entire conservative party, run by P.M. Harold Macmillan, was criticized for their handling of the scandal. Macmillan resigned. The following year, the Labour Party gained the majority in Parliament.
Profumo himself was a-okay. He left the government and devoted himself to philanthropy. In 1975, the Queen pronounced him a Commander of the British Empire.
The people who really were affected by the affair were Ward and Keeler. After listening to the judge’s condemning summary of the trial, Ward returned home and took a fatal dose of barbiturates. As the years went on and moral panic decreased, it became evident Ward was made a scapegoat to save the reputation of the Macmillan government. His story was revisited in the 2013 book Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK and in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical called Stephen Ward.
As a Guardian op-ed by Tanya Gold points out, Keeler’s reputation never received the redemption that Profumo received during his life, and Ward’s received posthumously. She died on December 4, 2017, having been dogged her entire life by an affair she didn’t particularly want. In her 2001 memoir, Truth at Last, Keeler wrote, “My life has been cursed by sex I didn’t particularly want. [John] Profumo was all over me and there wasn’t much I could do about it....He was a much older man, not someone I wanted to be with, it just happened [John] had power too and that was part of it for me." The rest of Keeler's major life events — her failed marriages, the changes in her body, the birth of her son — were tracked by tabloids.
But what about Philip?
Ah, yes, Philip. What does he have to do with this mess? The Crown implies that Philip went to Ward's famous parties, where people of all types mixed. The back of his head is seen in a photograph. After Ward died, a portrait of Philip was found in his belongings.
The episode of The Crown begins in April 1962, months after Keeler and Profumo met at the party. Therefore, The Crown never associates Philip with the Profumo Affair. Essentially, the scandal for the Palace is that Philip had been consorting with an illicit bunch of people. Once again, he put pleasure over duty.