"He was like a runaway engine," explained one of John Stonehouse's colleagues in Parliament. "He gathered speed as he went—the only question was when he would reach a sharp bend." Stonehouse, 49, an ambitious and cheeky British Labour M.P. for nearly 18 years, who doubled as a footloose international wheeler-dealer, went careening off the tracks last Nov. 20. That was the day he left his belongings in a Miami Beach hotel cabana and dramatically and purposefully dropped out of sight. A former bureaucratic whiz kid who had dreamed aloud of becoming prime minister (he once served as minister of post and telecommunications), Stone-house rocked Britain's shaky Labour government by his disappearance. One rumor identified him as a Communist spy, another as a CIA agent. When a chipper Stonehouse was collared late last month by Melbourne, Australia police as he attempted to pick up his mail under an assumed name, the mystery began to unravel. Apologetically cabling British Prime Minister Harold Wilson that he had suffered a "brain-storm" due to the pressure of business, Stonehouse emerged less as a figure of intrigue than as a financial bungler one step ahead of his creditors. "Much pomp and no circumstance," sniffed a former associate. "He had no business expertise and he would not listen to anyone who had."

But if the smooth-talking Stonehouse, captain of a shaky empire in imports and exports, had left behind a legion of angry associates, he retained the loyalty of two steadfast women: his baffled wife, Barbara, and his handsome, dark-haired secretary, 28-year-old Sheila Buckley. Mrs. Stonehouse, flown to Australia by a British newspaper, endured a perplexing reunion with her husband, whom for more than a month she had presumed to be dead. "I know I still love him, and I will stay on if that is what he wants," she said. "But what worries me is that I still can-not find out why he did it all. He needs to see a psychiatrist." Back in England, the recently divorced Mrs. Buckley was pledging Stonehouse her unwavering fidelity. "I deny being his lover," she maintained, "but I would say I was closer to him than anyone. I would go to Australia tonight if he sent for me." She spoke darkly of efforts to "blackmail" her boss by former business colleagues.

Despite Stonehouse's claim that he'd suffered a momentary "breakdown," his disappearance had been carefully plotted. As early as July he had begun obtaining a false passport and, later, an international credit card. In September, he tried them out on a trip to Beirut—successfully.

Ironically, Stonehouse was nabbed in Australia because of his likeness to another fugitive Briton—Lord Lucan, who is wanted in England for the slaying of his children's nanny. In order to prove he was not Lucan, Stonehouse had to reveal his own identity.

Detained only briefly by Australian authorities, Stonehouse asked to be allowed to remain Down Under. And unless Scotland Yard is able to uncover an extraditable criminal offense in the sweeping investigation it is conducting into his affairs, his request will probably be granted. In the meantime, supersalesman Stonehouse is remaining cautiously and uncharacteristically mum. "There is a great deal to be told one of these days," he promises darkly. "But not just yet. Not until I'm allowed to stay."