Modern politics: a shaggy dog story

RINKAGATE: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe by Simon Freeman & Barrie Penrose Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
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As the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, prepares to investigate the recent cash-for-questions allegations, those involved could do worse than read Simon Freeman's recounting of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, a "sleaze" story on a scale all of its own that came to trial at the Old Bailey in June 1979 just as the Tories first came to power.

In the course of the first round of the cash-for-questions story, the Guardian accused Mr Neil Hamilton MP of taking money from the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. The bagman was said to have been the lobbyist Ian Greer, who knew both men well. Both Mr Hamilton and Mr Greer disagreed with the Guardian's version of events and sued for libel.

Meanwhile, senior members of the government were going to some lengths to discover how deeply they'd got into the do-do. The deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine asked Mr Hamilton if he had any "financial relationship" with Mr Greer. The silvery-headed Mr Hamilton said no. Faced with similar questions, the white-haired Mr Greer said yes. Given their mature years, both men should have been more careful.

Mr Heseltine was questioning Mr Hamilton in Mr Major's name. Mr Hamilton has thus been shown to have lied to his Prime Minister, not an attractive way for a parliamentary representative to behave. Yet Mr Hamilton has not resigned. Bold as brass, he still takes his seat in the Commons and no one complains. What is wrong with this country?

Whatever it is was there 21 years ago when a bungling would-be assassin named Andrew Newton shot a Great Dane bitch called Rinka out on Exmoor. He failed to murder the dog's owner, Norman Scott, as he claimed he had been ordered to by Scott's on-off lover, Jeremy Thorpe. Yet within four years, the former leader of the Liberal party and three other men were on trial on charges of conspiracy to murder (and, in Jeremy Thorpe's case, incitement to murder too) at the Old Bailey. Although they were acquitted, Rinkagate boasts that "this tells for the first time the true story" of how those two events were linked.

Thorpe was a promiscuous homosexual. This being England in the early 1960s, such behaviour would have meant certain career death had it been made public. However, Thorpe's fellow Liberals, as well as the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a number of other leading Labour and Tory politicians, the police and M15 all knew about this, yet they chose to do nothing and Thorpe became the leader of Liberal Party. (Wilson's former press secretary Joe Haines revealed last month that if Thorpe had joined the Cabinet and kept the Tories in office after the February 1974 election,Wilson was ready to ruin him by going public with the Norman Scott story. He never did.)

Scott, the central character of the story, was a neurotic former model and would-be horse-trainer Thorpe met at a riding stable in 1960. The two men became quickly friends of sorts. If Scott is to be believed, sex with Thorpe was as dry and unwelcome as eating a hedgehog: one wonders why he kept going back for more. Scott's greatest obsession, though, was the matter of his lost national insurance card which Thorpe allegedly promised to help resolve. If only he'd done that, he might have saved himself a lot of grief.

Instead, he turned the matter over to a fellow West Country Liberal MP, Peter Bessell, who like so many of the characters in this story was also a raving liar. Bessell eventually turned on Thorpe and became the prosecution's star witness, and although Thorpe was acquitted the two men destroyed each other. Bessell died in 1985.

Freeman's prose is journalese and cliche-ridden. His grasp of British political history is a bit sloppy: the Asquith-Lloyd George split happened in 1916 and not the Twenties, and Scott could not have telephoned Bessell in his Commons office in October 1970 if Bessell chose not to contest the June 1970 election. That said, though, the horrible detail of this story makes it hard to put down.

The day Thorpe was acquitted, he walked out of court waving triumphantly. But the verdict left the nation divided and Thorpe's end, though he refused to accept it then, was political oblivion.

Curiously, there are those who refuse to believe that Thorpe brought his fate upon himself by lying about his homosexuality. Some of his supporters have accused Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose of lying. They have not done so. But if there is a moral to be drawn from this book it is that telling lies fractures and weakens the soul. Jeremy Thorpe - and Neil Hamilton, 21 years later - would have us believe that lying is OK. Have we become so enfeebled that this no longer makes us very very angry?