Forgiven: The belated rehabilitation of Jeremy Thorpe

As the Lib Dems prepare to mark the ex-leader's 80th birthday, David Randall recalls his bizarre fall

Somewhere, locked away in the heart and mind of Jeremy Thorpe, are answers to the mysteries that destroyed the career of perhaps the most charismatic figure in British politics since the war. Thorpe, certainly to those of us whose public awareness came of age in the mid-1960s, had more wit and charm than a whole planeload of Tony Blairs. But his denial of a homosexual relationship with the former male model Norman Scott, and an alleged conspiracy, by Thorpe and others, to kill Scott (of which they were subsequently acquitted), finished the public life of this dazzlingly talented man.

In the 30 years since his trial, Thorpe – stricken with Parkinson's disease these past three decades – has never publicly addressed the central riddles of his case. Is he, was he, homosexual; and, if so, why – 25 years after Chris Smith became the first openly gay MP – has he never clarified his sexuality? Second, how does he explain why the claims of Scott – a man whom few, least of all the judge at Thorpe's trial, would describe as a convincing witness – caused elements of the Liberal Party to react, and a former pilot called Andrew Newton to level a gun at Scott, and pull the trigger.

But next month, an absolution of sorts will be delivered. A party to mark Thorpe's 80th birthday will be held, in, of all hallowed halls, the National Liberal Club. The five men who have followed Thorpe as leader of the Liberals or Liberal Democrats, including Nick Clegg, are expected to attend, but his official biographer, Michael Bloch, is not. His subject, and a circle of loyal friends, agreed to co-operate with Bloch on condition the book was not published in Thorpe's lifetime. At least one attempt to do so has soured relations, even though several reports say the book contains no great revelations.

The other, understandable, absence at the party will be any brooding over the terrible, tawdry, events of 1976-79, when Scott's allegations caused Thorpe to lose, first, the leadership of his party, then his North Devon seat, and, finally, at his trial for conspiracy to murder, any hope of resuming his place in politics. Instead, there will be old memories and, unspoken, bittersweet thoughts about what might have been for the Eton- and Oxford-educated television interviewer and barrister who lit up the politics of the Sixties like a film star turning up unannounced at a vicarage garden party. Aquiline-featured, with a dry sense of humour, he seemed to impressionable teenage followers of events such as myself to be more like a matinée idol from a former age than a politician. Thorpe's impeccable suits, velvet-trimmed overcoats and natty hats had a certain kind of male style that had aficionados clasping their hands with enthusiasm, and his wit rarely missed the mark. In 1962, when the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, sacked seven of his Cabinet to try to preserve his administration, Thorpe declared: "Greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his friends for his life."

Five years later, and just eight after he entered the Commons, Thorpe was elected leader of his party. He offered the electorate an urbane contrast with his two rivals: the smart, but slippery, Harold Wilson, and the Conservatives' more straightforward, but slightly odd and wooden, Edward Heath.

Much good it did him, at least initially, for the 1970 general election saw the Liberals reduced to a mere six seats. But, with the Tory government soon becoming unpopular, Thorpe's party made hay in a series of by-elections, and then, at the first of the two elections in 1974, won enough seats – 14 – in a hung parliament to have the prospect of real power dangled tantalisingly before them by Heath, desperate to cling on in Downing Street. Thorpe was offered the Home Office in return for his party's support. He declined, and, within two years, the long shadow of Norman Scott began to darken his career.

The story, briefly, was this: in the early Sixties, according to Scott's claims, he and Thorpe had a physical relationship, years before homosexuality was legal, and decades before it was acceptable for a politician. He took these claims to senior party members, and it gradually became obvious that Scott was capable of being a considerable nuisance. Then, in 1975, a small-time airline pilot called Andrew Newton ambushed the former male model on Exmoor, shot Scott's dog, Rinka, and turned the barrel on Scott. The gun did not fire. A year later, at the trial that convicted Newton of firearms offences, Scott made his claims about Thorpe public, adding that he had received threats as a result.

Letters, written by Thorpe, using his pet name for Scott and promising his young friend that "bunnies can and will go to France", were sold to newspapers; and, in 1978, Thorpe and three others were charged with conspiracy to murder. Thorpe declined to give evidence, but was cleared, an eventuality that was certainly not hampered by a judge who said of Scott: "He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite."

Since then, leading characters have died, and lips have been largely sealed. Gone are Peter Bessell, leading prosecution witness; and defending counsel George Carman, the wily star of the northern circuit whose name was made by the case. In 2004, his son, however, did confide to The Times: "The best deal done by Carman QC was persuading Taylor QC [counsel for the prosecution] not to use any of the abundant evidence of Thorpe's promiscuous homosexuality. In return, George admitted that his client had 'homosexual tendencies' at the time he met Scott."

Norman Scott is still very much alive, living on Dartmoor, in a house said to have been originally provided by a benefactor. Andrew Newton, however, is the case's most curious character. He subsequently changed his name to Hann Redwin, and, in 1993, featured in a west London inquest into the death of his partner, Caroline Mayorcas, whom he had met at a west London health club. He had been her only companion when she fell 900ft to her death while climbing in the Alps. Redwin also fell, but survived. He was last heard of living in Chiswick, and engaged to a woman called Rosalieve Lowsley, described as a "wealthy company director".

Thorpe himself was dealt a further deep wound after the case when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He hoped for some way back into politics, but there was none. Thereafter, his role was severely restricted by the persisting scent of scandal, and his own advancing frailty. Television rejected him, as did the old Greater London Council for a race relations post, and, when he did land something – the British head of Amnesty International – smaller minds than his swiftly forced him out.

His most lasting post-trial contribution was as chair of the political committee of the United Nations Association. His only public statement in recent years was a condemnation of the Iraq invasion, a cause entirely in keeping with his left-leaning instincts of the past.

Today, he and his wife Marion have homes in Bayswater and Devon, and with him remain, untold, his secrets and mysteries.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living