Among the many suggestions made for Peter Mandelson's rehabilitation after political disgrace, some more charitable souls have quoted the example of John Profumo. The Machiavellian schemer, it has been said, might also redeem himself through good works. There must, after all, be some scope in Hartlepool to match Profumo's long witness at Toynbee Hall among the poor of London's East End.
Profumo - unlike Mandelson - accepted at once that he would never hold public office again after his fall in 1963 in the sex-and-spying scandal that bears his name. Yet the very fact that he remains indelibly etched on the public's imagination almost 40 years after he, too, was caught out telling a lie - albeit in his case to the House of Commons, not to the Prime Minister's spokesman - suggests that, in certain cases, atonement will never quite wipe out the original sin. Whether Peter Mandelson will fall into this category remains to be seen, but the Profumo affair certainly provides him with some important lessons.
In Profumo's case, the rigours of his penance seem only to have been matched by the burgeoning industry that has grown up around the whole imbroglio. Lately, Christine Keeler - the woman who shared her favours with both Profumo, at the time Harold Macmillan's secretary of state for war, and the Soviet military attache, Yevgeny Ivanov - has again appeared astride a chair in the Mail on Sunday, as the paper serialises her memoirs. This was her third attempt at telling her side of the story - each one has been different, the second coming straight after the 1988 film Scandal brought Keeler and her sidekick, Mandy Rice-Davies, to a whole new audience. The new twist this time is that Keeler has accused Profumo of getting her pregnant - something she inexplicably forgot to mention previously.
Public fascination with the Profumo affair meant that a mini publishing industry sprang up around the scandal, featuring conspiracy theorists who laboured to tie in President Kennedy, Edgar Hoover and the devil. I should perhaps at this stage admit to a small contribution of my own - a biography of Bronwen Astor, chatelaine of Cliveden, and widow of Lord (Bill) Astor, whose reputation was ruined and life cut short by the affair.
The reasons Profumo achieved such legendary status fall into two broad categories - the details and the context. It was the combination that counted. Take Cliveden, one of the grandest stately homes in England, as your backdrop, devise a plot that includes naked romps around the pool, drugs, guns, gangland vendettas, spies, satanism and even a royal connection, and you have a story that will run and run.
Then, there is the cast. There is John Profumo himself, who has transformed himself from the letch who gambled and lost his glittering career to the latter-day equivalent of the penitent thief, so worthy that if he weren't in his eighties he might be a candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury. He is followed by the erstwhile cheeky cherub Mandy Rice-Davies (or Marilyn Foreman, as she now likes to be known), who has cornered the market in making the best out of a bad job. She is now married to a wealthy businessman and regularly holidays with his great friends Sir Denis Thatcher and his good lady wife. Meanwhile, Christine Keeler has been hailed by no less an iconoclast than Julie Burchill as "tricky, tragic, almost incredibly lovely" and "probably the most fascinating woman of her time". (No matter that her memory does seem to play tricks on her.) On Stephen Ward, the osteopath whose voyeurism, delusions of political influence and social climbing precipitated the melt-down, the jury is eternally split between those, like Ludovic Kennedy, who see him as a victim of a terrible injustice, and those, including Rice-Davies and Keeler, who are now happy to accuse him of being variously an MI6 stooge or a Svengali.
Yet, however sensational the dramatis personae, their collective fascination only explains why the Profumo scandal hit the headlines in the first instance. What has kept it there is its symbolic importance.
"The Profumo affair was merely the focus and catalyst for the coming to a head of that revolution in mood that had begun to show itself late in the summer of 1955," according to the social historian and one-time editor of Private Eye Christopher Booker. It began with Malcolm Muggeridge's anti-monarchy articles, moved on through the angry young men, CND marches and the growth of satire, and was characterised by a mounting impatience with convention. "With Profumo's admission of guilt," Booker suggests, "all the swelling tide of scorn and resentment for age, tradition and authority, all the poisonous fantasy of limitless corruption and decay into which it had ripened were finally unleashed in their full fury."
For many, the scandal marked a watershed in postwar Britain, on a par with events such as Suez and the inner-city riots of the 1980s, for not only did it bring down the Conservative government, but it ended the odd social interlude of the Macmillan years, with its return to the buttoned-up conventions of the prewar world. Underneath this obsession with good form, the structure of society was in fact changing very rapidly. The Profumo affair, with its tawdry tales of sex among ministers and aristocrats, blew the whistle on the hypocrisy of a government that lectured on morality and held up the monarchy and the aristocracy as role models - while its figureheads were carrying on in a licentious way.
By debunking the old hierarchy, the scandal ushered in a new and classless aristocracy of pop stars, photographers, decorators and designers. Compared to such seismic changes, the current political brouhaha seems like small potatoes. Yet, if Mandelson's political fall were to trigger the public's rejection of new Labour, then the affair might have the same tremendous influence on the direction of the nation that the Profumo scandal did.
Bronwen Astor: her life and times is published by HarperCollins on 19 February (£8.99)