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Harold Wilson’s secret affair with a younger aide revealed after 50 years

Close aide of former Labour leader also confirms that Wilson’s doctor once suggested murdering another woman with whom he had slept

He was the football-mad Labour leader from a working class background who made a pitch for Downing Street with a promise to modernise Britain and end “13 years of Tory misrule”. Not the current leader, Keir Starmer, but rather Harold Wilson, who served eight years as British prime minister in the 1960s and 70s.

Now, almost 30 years after his death, Westminster has been gripped by the revelation that the ostensibly happily-married Wilson had a long-running, secret affair with an aide who was more than two decades younger than him, during his final few years in Number 10.

The relationship with his deputy press secretary, Janet Hewlett-Davies, is said by one of Wilson’s closest advisers to have brought him a little “sunshine at sunset” and a final burst of happiness as his premiership petered out before he eventually resigned in 1976, citing exhaustion.

For 50 years the affair was known only to two of Wilson’s closest allies, his former press secretary and Hewlett-Davies’s boss, the now 96-year-old Joe Haines, and also Bernard Donoughue (89), a Labour peer who served as Wilson’s top policy adviser.


In an interview with BBC’s Today radio programme, Donoughue also confirmed a decades-old rumour that Wilson had a second secret sexual relationship, years before he entered Downing Street, with Marcia Williams, his formidable political adviser who was said to have later bullied and harangued him as prime minister. Wilson had always denied rumours of an affair with Williams and won a libel case against a magazine over a cartoon depicting him in bed with her.

The affair with the now deceased Hewlett-Davies, however, was suspected by nobody. It was first revealed on Wednesday evening in the Times newspaper by Haines, who said he wanted the historical record of Wilson’s time in office to be completely accurate.

Haines told the Times that he caught Hewlett-Davies sneaking up a staircase to the prime minister’s room late one evening in 1974. She confessed to him that she was having an affair with Wilson, who was the prime minister who first ordered British troops to Northern Ireland at the outset of the Troubles.

Haines said Wilson’s affair with Hewlett-Davies “increased his morale in the last two years or so before he retired”; he was said to have been weary and paranoid about the security services throughout his final two-year spell in power, and may have been in the early stages of dementia.

“More than anyone could know, she was of significance to the last Wilson administration: she was Harold Wilson’s mistress. She died nursing a secret which never leaked from Downing Street, the most notorious leaky building in Britain,” said Haines. The only other person he discussed it with was Donoughue, and they decided to never tell anybody else.

Donoughue told the Today programme that Wilson had also effectively admitted the affair to him on a stroll around Number 10 shortly before he left office. Donoughue, who was a junior agriculture minister in Tony Blair’s first government, said the former prime minister indirectly suggested “in a very Wilsonian way” that he was in a relationship with Hewlett-Davies.

“I added, in a very Wilsonian way, which I learned from him, that I was pleased his relationship with her was so close. He said she was a lovely person and he had never been happier,” Donoughue said.

In a stunning twist, Donoughue also confirmed the accuracy of another old rumour: that Joe Stone, Wilson’s doctor, had once suggested to him and Haines that Stone could kill the bullying Williams “with a bad pill” to free Wilson from her yoke.

“He made the worrying suggestion that he would dispose of her… He was thinking only in the national interest… He’d be doing it for the nation and the prime minister, because he thought Harold Wilson was a great man. But both Joe [Haines] and I said our view was, as a doctor, he shouldn’t.”

Donoughue said Wilson had had a sexual affair with Williams, who later became Baroness Falkender, and that she later used it to “exercise a lot of unpleasant control” over the prime minister.

Wilson, considered one of the great Labour prime ministers of Britain, died in 1995 at the age of 79 while suffering from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. His long-suffering wife, the poet Mary Wilson, died in 2018 aged 102. Hewlett-Davies, who was also married while she was having the affair with Wilson, died in October last year.

“[The affair] was a little sunshine at sunset,” said Donoughue. “She obviously made him finally happy, [and] I had never seen him happy.”

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