Read as fiction, Christine Keeler's The Truth at Last makes for quite a gripping thriller, and provides more than enough new angles on the familiar story of the 1960s Profumo scandal to make it just worth reading. "New angles" is an understatement: Keeler's story turns the familiar one on its head, and transforms the artist-osteopath Stephen Ward from a charming, persecuted pimp into a sinister and murderous Soviet spymaster controlling not only Anthony Blunt, but also Sir Roger Hollis, then head of MI5.
Other sensational novelties include a walk-on part for Oswald Mosley, the prewar fascist leader, who is numbered among her many famous clients, and the suggestion that my first editor at the Daily Telegraph, Sir Colin Coote, much decor- ated as a First World War hero, was not quite the silken- haired patriot he seemed. Apparently, it was not only at the Garrick Club that he used to wine and dine Ward, who treated his back. Those innocent meetings, it seems, were merely a cover for hitherto unknown, more conspiratorial encounters.
Nothing is impossible these days. After all, if a Master of the Queen's Pictures can turn out to be a spy, then surely it cannot be ruled out that an editor of the Daily Telegraph could also be one. In any case, now that I come to think of it, there was always something a bit hairy-heeled about Coote - his friendship with Lord Boothby, for example, and the mysterious way he had walked out, quite literally, on his first wife. Rumour had always had it that the two of them, in the 1930s, were having afternoon tea in Brown's - then as now the country set's favourite London hotel - when a glamorous, foreign-looking lady passed by. Coote took one glance and, without saying another word to his wife (whom he never saw again), followed the woman out of the hotel. She became his second wife. I remember her well. She was a Dutch girl whom Coote had not seen since falling in love with her years earlier while he was serving in Flanders during the First World War.
All a bit James Bondish, one has to admit. So perhaps, after all, Keeler's suspicions have some substance. Then, as happens so often in this book, a small detail in the narrative sets alarm bells ringing - in this case, the news that those conspiratorial meetings between Coote and Ward took place in, of all places, a Kenco coffee shop. The thought of Sir Colin Coote, DSO, an archetypal six-foot Edwardian boulevardier, epicure and wine buff, conducting any type of business in a London coffee bar well and truly beggars belief.
Unfortunately, there is much else in Keeler's "truth" that also beggars belief. Take the following passage describing her life with Ward during the Cuban missile crisis. "I spent 48 hours worrying before going back to Wimpole Mews [Ward's consulting rooms] on what was to be a turbulent, landmark day. Eugene [Ivanov, the Soviet military attache] was there. He and Stephen were just off to lunch with Lord Arran, the permanent under-secretary, [with a view to setting up] a summit conference." Lord Arran, known to us all as Boofie, was a delightfully scatty alcoholic peer, and occasional journalist, who later played a central role in the legalisation of homosexuality. He is no more to be confused - except, possibly, in a TV serial - with a permanent under-secretary, the highest rank in the Civil Service, than is the equally eccentric and delightful Earl of Onslow today. As for the summit conference that Boofie was expected to call, it is easier to imagine its location - the bar at White's Club - than its participants, who could not have included Keeler herself.
But I am digressing, because the kernel of the book is the claim that Ward was a (possibly the) senior Soviet spy in London during the late 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the cold war. Keeler portrays him as not just a master spy, but a particularly ruthless one - to the extent that he tried to drown her in the stretch of the Thames that flows beside the famous Cliveden Cottage, lent to Ward by Lord Astor. The reason why he wanted to drown her, it seems, was that she knew too much, having been allowed to listen into all his lengthy conversations about defence matters with Ivanov, Hollis and the Tory MP Sir Godfrey Nicholson. Not that Keeler allowed the attempted murder to worry her overmuch: her life with Ward, and indeed her love (strictly platonic, we are told), seem to have continued without interruption.
Keeler makes no attempt to disguise her life's hedonistic irresponsibility. According to her, she had no choice. What she calls the "diktat" of the Sixties zeitgeist, to which she was powerless to say nay, was "to do anything you wanted" and "to think only of yourself". No regrets on that front. What irks her is the jury's verdict that Ward was guilty of living off immoral earnings; and what she wants to make clear in her book is that the official "establishment" version of the Profumo scandal, drawn up by Lord Denning in the famous report of that name, which damned him as a pimp and her as a tart, did them less than justice.
And, in a way, that is true. Keeler's book does convince one that neither of them were in the sex business for money. But while the alternative role in which she prefers to cast herself - that of a good-time girl out only for kicks - is entirely plausible, the one in which she tries to cast Ward - that of murderous Soviet spymaster - is not. And even if it were, why is she so sure that he would prefer to be remembered as a traitor, rather than a pimp? But Keeler is sure. She writes that she has "never cried so deeply" as when they found Stephen "guilty of living off immoral earnings", and that when later she heard complete strangers in the street "putting Stephen down, calling him dirty names", her hatred of them was "violent and complete". How could the wicked establishment have done him such dirt? She owed it to him to put the record straight; to wipe those naughty words off the slate; to make sure that posterity is never allowed to forget that Stephen Ward was nothing as naughty as a pimp, just a mere traitor.
Can that really be Keeler's motive? A part of me wants to believe in her sincerity; that, on her scale of criminal values, pimping is worse than treason. But there again, a certain scepticism persists, for one can't help remembering her understandably hateful feelings towards Ward after his botched attempt on her life. It is just possible that her book aims not to clear his name, but to blacken it still further.
Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph