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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.