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Blackmailing the Prime Minister – a piece by Andrew Williams

The Prime Minster’s Affair by Andrew Williams is out now


‘I’ll come straight to the point,’ she said, ‘the Prime Minister was a very poor man, now he’s got the whole Treasury of Great Britain behind him.’ Her intention was clear: blackmail. The Prime Minister was an innocent, she observed to his intermediary, he had written her ‘pornographic’ letters. Well, now he had a choice: pay up or their affair would ‘blaze’ in the press.

Lest there be any doubt, the innocent in question was not the current occupant of Number 10 but Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald in 1929. 

There have been fifty-five Prime Ministers since George I appointed Robert Walpole First Lord of the Treasury in 1721. Many have entertained mistresses, perhaps most – Number 10 has been home to notorious philanderers – but solid Scots family man, Ramsay MacDonald wasn’t one of them. Within months of taking office his government was hit by the shock of the Wall Street crash and a world economic crisis. Still handsome at 63, with wavy grey hair, a thick moustache and dark brown eyes, his beloved wife, Margaret had died 18 years before, and he had brought up his four children alone. There had been other women, notably a secret fifteen-year affair with another Margaret, a poet, society beauty, and daughter of an earl. Their love had foundered on the rock of his political ambition, on fear that the newspapers would make great sport of the illegitimate son of a ploughboy carrying on with an aristocrat.

But at some point in the late 1920’s MacDonald met a Viennese woman called Frau Forster, ‘a faded blonde, very sophisticated, very agreeable,’ according to his friend Sir Oswald Mosley. Notorious later as the leader of Britain’s fascists, Mosley and his wife, Cynthia, were prominent Labour Party supporters at the time, and on the eve of the 1929 General Election MacDonald invited them to join him and his ‘little Austrian friend’ at a hotel in Cornwall for a ‘gay party’.

By the autumn of 1929 the love affair was over. Ramsay Mac was in Number 10, Mosley was at the Treasury, and Labour was in power but without a majority in parliament. Spurned but still in London, Frau Forster seems to have fallen on hard times. According to Mosley, she contacted him to request a meeting, and she warned him that the government was in danger of falling. He quickly realised that it was Frau Forster herself who posed the threat to her former lover’s premiership.

She had visited Number 10 already, she claimed, and when she asked him for money he had lost control, banging his head against a wall in the Cabinet Room. Then he had taken her by the shoulders and thrown her into Downing Street. Mosley said he was shocked and she should understand that the Prime Minister was overworked and under terrible strain. But Frau Forster wasn’t interested in excuses; she had letters and she was willing to sell them. What was MacDonald to do? ‘We have implacable enemies who sleeplessly lie in wait to damage our reputation,’ he confided to his diary. Should he meet her blackmail demand? Who could he trust to retrieve the letters? That is the stuff of The Prime Minister’s Affair.