Thorpe's friends - and a murder conspiracy

Jeremy Thorpe's trial in 1979 shocked the nation. Jason Thompson evaluates the man and his life in the light of new evidence

On a rainy night in October 1975, two men drove along a lonely coastal road in Exmoor. Inside their yellow Mazda was a Great Dane called Rinka. The car stopped. Both men got out and Rinka jumped around in anticipation of her walk. One of the men pulled out a Mauser pistol and shot the Great Dane dead. "You can't involve Rinka!", her owner shouted. "You can't involve the dog". As the owner tried to give his beloved pet the kiss of life, the gunman levelled his weapon and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. He kept trying, but the gun would not fire, so he jumped into the car and sped away from the scene.

One night 21 years later, film director Roy Ackerman was woken at his home by a bang on the door. It was Andrew Newton, the man who shot Rinka, arriving unannounced in response to months of phone calls and meetings with enigmatic go-betweens. After three hours of conversation, Newton agreed to tell his story of being by hired to kill Rinka's owner Norman Scott - Jeremy Thorpe's former lover.

The bizarre and astonishing series of events that led to the downfall of the dazzling Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe have never been fully explained. In 1979, Thorpe and his co-defendants went on trial at the Old Bailey for conspiring to murder Norman Scott. They were found not guilty. But in a Channel 4 Secret Lives documentary, broadcast next week, new evidence from surviving witnesses suggests that a conspiracy did exist - and that it involved close friends and colleagues of the Liberal leader.

Jeremy Thorpe was a man of fascinating contradictions, balancing social ambitions with radical idealism. He was the son of a Tory MP, but it was the minority Liberal party that fired the young Thorpe's imagination. A passionate advocate of human rights causes such as apartheid and immigration, he mixed in aristocratic circles and his second marriage, in 1973, was to the Queen's cousin, Marion Harewood. In the era of Carnaby Street, Thorpe wore a three-piece suit, watch chain and trilby. Yet it was this Edwardian dandy who was to modernise the party, targeting marginal seats and exploiting new technology. He used helicopters and hovercrafts to conquer the remote constituency of North Devon, becoming an MP in 1959.

But away from the political stage, Thorpe was also a man with homosexual tendencies at a time when homosexual practices were still illegal. Political culture in the early 1960s was dominated by the Profumo affair, and fears that the British state could be jeopardised by its ministers' sexual indiscretions. Thorpe's encounter in 1961 with a stable groom, Norman Scott, was to determine the rest of his life. Feeling protective of the handsome young man, he suggested that Scott contact him should he need help. Scott visited Thorpe at Westminster and maintains that a sexual relationship began that night. Thorpe denies the affair took place, but his letters testify to intimacy. One refers to Scott affectionately as "Bunnies", and concludes: "I miss you".

Thorpe had chosen a dangerous lover: Scott had a history of mental illness. After the affair cooled, an outburst in public that he wanted to kill Thorpe brought him to the attention of the Chelsea police. Scott gave a statement alleging an affair. In a 1979 LWT film, Inspector Robert Huntley explains that the inquiry was a abandoned because the police suspected that Thorpe would simply issue a denial.

Scott was determined to be heard - by anyone who would listen. He pestered Thorpe to return his national insurance card, without which he could not get a job. He even sent his story to Thorpe's mother.

Thorpe turned for help in containing this persistent threat to close friend Peter Bessell. Thorpe, whose wit and charm inspired ferocious loyalty, had, according to Bessell, confided his homosexuality to his fellow West Country Liberal MP. Bessell was excited by the drama of his glamorous colleague's emerging crisis. At Thorpe's bidding, he kept Scott at bay in a cover-up that lasted 10 years. Bessell tried to find Scott a job abroad. He met the Social Services minister to resolve Scott's national insurance problems, and went to see the Home Secretary to reassure Thorpe that the police were no longer investigating him. He sent Scott money, describing the pay-offs as "retainers".

Meanwhile Thorpe's star was rising. In 1967, still only 38, he became party leader and was made a Privy Counsellor by his friend Harold Wilson. An internal Liberal party inquiry in 1971 concerning Scott's allegations came to nothing and at the General Election in February 1974 the Liberals won six million Liberal votes - the party's highest share for half a century. Edward Heath invited Thorpe to Downing St. A coalition government would have won Thorpe a cabinet post. But party members were appalled by the idea of supporting the Conservatives, and without party backing a coalition was impossible. Still, Thorpe had taken his party to the peak of its post- war fortunes.

It was also in 1974, however, that Thorpe's private life caught up with him. In January, Bessell fled the country in financial ruin. Needing a new minder, Thorpe turned to another close friend, Liberal deputy treasurer David Holmes. Holmes died in 1990, but is heard in the film describing Thorpe's obsession with the ever-loquacious Scott: "It gave Jeremy the sense of permanent persecution - that `I will never be safe while that man is around' ". Holmes paid Scott pounds 2,500 for a cache of what he believed to be incriminating letters, which he burned in a friend's Aga. But the measure was not enough to silence Scott.

Drastic action was needed. Holmes says that a plot was then hatched to frighten Scott into silence, and that Thorpe knew about it. Holmes contacted a business associate, John Le Mesurier, who recalls a conversation with Holmes: "David felt that this man Scott ... is just a lunatic and to get rid of him ... would be like getting rid of a mad dog." Le Mesurier was appalled by the suggestion, made by Thorpe's barrister at the trial, that Thorpe's co-defendants might have acted independently of him: "Scott wasn't annoying me ... and he wasn't annoying David. The only person he was causing great distress to, directly, was Jeremy Thorpe."

Through an intermediary, Holmes and Le Mesurier hired Andrew Newton, a domestic airline pilot with a reputation as a maverick. Newton says on camera that Holmes hired him to kill Scott. In a taped telephone conversation, Holmes accepts Newton's fear that they might be faced by a charge of "conspiracy to bloody ... murder".

It was not the shooting that ended Thorpe's career, however, but the money that paid for it. The original - entirely innocent - source was philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward, now owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hayward donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Liberal party. A year before the shooting, Thorpe asked Hayward to settle election expenses through a special route, in the form of two cheques to the unwitting, Jersey-based businessman Nadir Dinshaw. Thorpe used one of these sums to buy Scott's letters. It was this misuse of party funds that caused David Steel to demand Thorpe's resignation.

Newton's trial in March 1976 for the shooting allowed the press to report Scott's allegations. In May, Thorpe resigned the leadership. When, in October 1977, Newton sold his story of having been hired to kill Scott, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Thomas Hetherington, ordered the police to reopen their investigation. On August 2, 1978, Thorpe was arrested and charged.

Thorpe had always relied upon his friends. Now he called Nadir Dinshaw and told the Asian-born British citizen that unless he lied to the police about the money arrangements, he might be asked to "move on". Dinshaw understood this to mean that he would be deported. He was innocent of any impropriety and refused to lie, but was breathtaken: "I felt intensely sad. Basically it was a revelation to me that he had something to hide." Having alienated his friend Bessell, Thorpe also tried unsuccessfully to prevent his return to Britain as the main prosecution witness.

At the trial, which began on 8 May 1979, Bessell told the court that as early as 1968 Thorpe had talked about having Scott killed. The idea had come to nothing, but seven years later Bessell spoke to Holmes when the idea of murder resurfaced. Holmes confessed that he had hired Newton to kill Scott. Bessell's credibility was undermined, because he had signed a newspaper contract which doubled payment in the event of a prosecution: the defence tore him apart. But a member of the defence team now thinks this was unfair. Gereth Williams QC now comments that he found Bessell's evidence "curiously impressive", that it was unaffected by the newspaper contract and that Bessell "had genuinely come there to do his best to tell the truth."

Newton and Scott, the other two prosecution witnesses, were also heavily undermined. The judge dismissed Newton as a "chump". But new admissions suggest that Newton knew exactly what he was doing in his testimony, that his evidence would help the defence. Le Mesurier now says that Newton promised to "sort things out" in his Old Bailey testimony. Newton duly reduced the courtroom to laughter with a series of ludicrous responses under cross-examination, claiming CIA involvement in the affair and hurling his papers in the air.

Although Thorpe was acquitted, the trial ruined him and he never regained a position in public life. His political exile has been further tormented by Parkinson's disease, diagnosed shortly after the trial when Thorpe was in his mid-50s. His booming voice and theatrical demeanour have shrunk away. He lives in London and Devon with his wife Marion. He was invited to participate in the film, but declined due to ill health.

What lessons can be drawn from this strange tale? Scott pursued his vendetta with such bitterness that it is at least partially comprehensible that Thorpe's friends might have wished to obtain his silence. It seems most unlikely that a homosexual party leader, even of the Liberal party, could have come out 20 years ago and survived. But it was not society that destroyed Thorpe - on the contrary, conservative social attitudes and the court's regard for Thorpe's social and political position did much to save him. Thorpe was destroyed by his own vanity. He was reckless. He relied heavily on his friends, but did not then honour them.

Yet he emerges as a charming and magnetic figure. Thorpe was brilliantly witty, often thoughtful and kind, and was that rare politician who made politics exciting. In its fallen humanity, his story resonates with pathos on a classical scale.

The writer is assistant producer of `Secret Lives: Jeremy Thorpe'. To be broadcast at 9pm, Monday, 18 November, Channel 4.

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