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PETER FROST tries to unravel the truth about the disgraced Liberal leader who has died aged 85

IT was like a scene from a second-rate 1970s B movie.

It is a dark, wet and stormy night on a lonely coastal road in Exmoor. A yellow Mazda comes to a halt and two men and a Great Dane dog spill out of the car into the rainy night.

One man has a dark stubby Mauser pistol in his hand. He takes aim and shoots the huge hound dead.

The other man cannot believe what he has seen. He loved the dog.

“You can’t involve Rinka! You can’t involve the dog,” he shouts and then kneels over the animal and tries to give the dead dog the kiss of life.

Slowly the gunman levels his weapon at the other man’s head.

The gun jams. Desperately he pulls the trigger again and again, but to no avail. At last he jumps into the car and screams away. 

Neither the shooter nor the intended victim was John Jeremy Thorpe leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979 — but he might as well have been. The events that night condemned Thorpe and his political career to the dustbin of history.

The start of his fall from grace occurred when ex-model Norman Scott claimed to have had a homosexual love affair with him in the early 1960s. Such acts were still illegal in 1960s Britain.

Scott was the intended victim in that dramatic Exmoor shooting.

Thorpe was born to politics. He came from a family of high Tory MPs.

His education at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, could have propelled him into a safe Tory seat. Instead he chose the Liberal Party.

He became president of the Oxford University Liberal Club and even president of the Oxford Union in 1951.

A short stint as a TV interviewer ended when he was called to the bar in 1954.

He was adopted in 1952 as Liberal candidate for North Devon, a safe Tory seat. In the 1955 general election he halved the Conservative majority and finally narrowly won the seat in 1959.

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In 1967 he won the votes of half the dozen MPs that made up the entire Liberal Party in Westminster.

He became leader. His leadership was gimmicky. A colourful character, something of a dandy, he arrived at Westminster in Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and jaunty trilby hats.

He held some expected views for a Liberal leader. He called for Rhodesia to be bombed after it declared itself independent in 1965 and played a prominent role in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He was also a key figure in the campaign for Britain to join the Common Market.

In the 1970 general election Liberal seats fell from 13 to six — three of them, including Thorpe’s, by tiny majorities. Then between 1972 and 1974, the Liberals won an impressive string of five by-election victories.

The February 1974 election resulted in no party having a majority. The Tories won 297 seats and most votes, Labour won 301, the Liberals 14 and the remaining 22 went to minor parties.

Tory prime minister Edward Heath tried to enter a coalition with the Liberals, with Thorpe being offered the post of home secretary. Thorpe demanded significant commitments toward electoral reform. Heath refused.

Anyway a Tory-Liberal coalition would still have been seven seats short of a majority.

In the end Harold Wilson and Labour returned to power as a minority government.

Rumours about the MP’s homosexuality haunted his political career. Scott, a former model, met Thorpe in 1961 while working as a stable lad.

He later claimed that he and Thorpe had had a sexual relationship between 1961 and 1963, when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain.

Scott’s claims led to an inquiry within the Liberal Party in 1971, which cleared Thorpe.

This didn’t silence Scott. Some colleagues and supporters of Thorpe, it seems, thought that the solution might be a hired gunman. Dramatic, and in the end unsuccessful.

Thorpe was forced to resign the Liberal leadership, but that didn’t stop further police inquiries. He and three others were charged with conspiracy to murder Scott.

The trial was scheduled to take place a week before the 1979 general election, but Thorpe obtained a fortnight’s delay to fight the election. He lost his seat.

Thorpe did not give evidence in court. All four defendants were acquitted.

Not long after the end of the trial Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and retired from public life. He became a political recluse, only appearing in public on rare occasions.

In 1999 he published his memoirs. The book shed no light on the Scott affair nor on the ex-Liberal leader’s sexual orientation.

Jeremy Thorpe died of Parkinson’s disease, aged 85, on December 4 2014.

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This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 6 December 2014.

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