Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch, book review: A liberal brought low by scandal

Bloch takes no sides but takes us through a story that is sensational enough

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Before he started the task of writing the biography of Jeremy Thorpe, the “formidable” Liberal Baroness Seear said to Michael Bloch, “you’ll never get to the bottom of him”. That he has managed to do so, unveiling each facet of Thorpe’s character in Russian doll-like fashion, is a measure of Bloch’s skill and competence in capturing his subject.

Not only is this a fascinating portrait of a talented but deeply flawed individual, it’s also a totally compelling narrative that takes on the best aspects of an addictive thriller. To have a story that takes you from Eton via the Commons to the Old  Bailey and a trial for conspiracy to  murder is a tale that even Jeffrey Archer might find too far-fetched.

But then some might argue that Thorpe, if not a fictional character, was an invented one almost from his childhood. Born to an upper middle-class family in London, he had a barrister father whom he adored and an over-protective mother whose closeness to him would, years later, lead Liberal leader Jo Grimond to remark about Thorpe’s homosexuality “I suspected it from the moment I met him and when I met his mother I had no doubts”.

Play-acting and mimicry were almost a second nature to him through Eton – where an interest in the Liberal Party was fostered – and later at Oxford. He looked the part, too, with Edwardian-styled clothes complementing his appearance, which, as one reporter remarked was, with its “round chimpanzee eyes, arched eyebrows and high cheekbones”, “part Mephistopheles, part clown”.


There was always a hat, too, a trilby or Homburg, worn, Bloch relates, in homage to a headwear-manufacturing uncle. It was to bring disapproval years later from an even more imposing political figure. “Why do you always wear that stupid hat?” Margaret Thatcher once snapped at him. “It’s my trademark… like Churchill’s cigar,” he replied nonplussed.

But then he did have talents. Almost by the sheer force of his personality he revitalised a moribund Liberal party where contingency plans existed in the early 1950s to wind it up. He became an MP in 1959 and by the time he took over from Jo Grimond as party leader in 1967, the party, if not the force he always hoped it would become, was at least healthy. He also held strong, left-of-centre views that saw him opposing the South African regime, supporting independence for Commonwealth countries and helping, in 1961, to found Amnesty.

Underlying this, as Bloch points out, was a world of fantasy and, deeper still, a twilight realm of opportunistic and rough trade sex. His make-believe encompassed everything from believing that he was an heir to a baronetcy that had become dormant in 1418 to seriously thinking that he could have married Princess Margaret. Her engagement to Anthony Armstrong-Jones left him furious and did produce the memorable quip that he would have liked to “marry one and seduce the other”.

As for sex, all of it homosexual (although he enjoyed two happy marriages), we’re told he had a “strong sex drive and threw himself lustfully in the act. He would arrive for an amorous assignation, in his formal clothes, lay aside his furled umbrella and copy of The Times, carefully undress – and then behave with animal passion”. It was a passion that would lead him to the handsome groom and sometime male model Norman Josliffe (later Scott) and a relationship that would eventually lead to his downfall. Bloch takes no sides but is content to take us through a story that is sensational enough. Thorpe was accused of being involved in a conspiracy in which a former airline pilot was alleged to have been hired to get rid of Scott. In the event, the only casualty was Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka.

Thorpe was cleared, but his reputation was finished and he was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But he lived to become an almost revered father figure in Liberal circles. Greatness escaped the MP who always thought he was destined for No 10, but then, as this absorbing book shows, the seeds of his downfall were recognised at university, where a fellow student remarked: “He would be wiser to be more discreet.”