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Leader brought down by court case


Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe who has died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease

Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe who has died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease

Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe who has died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease

Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was a man whose political achievements were eclipsed and a potentially brilliant career utterly destroyed by his lurid and sometimes squalid personal life.

He faced a family tragedy, a business scandal and the sensational court case in which he was accused of conspiracy and incitement to murder former male model Norman Scott.

No other recent politician of such ability and popularity has been so totally ruined by the exposure of his activities outside the political arena.

The dual worries of a political career and the public revelations about his personal life took their toll on Thorpe, who was always a gaunt and slight figure.

After his acquittal at the Old Bailey in 1979 at the end of the Scott affair, he was rarely seen in public. He suffered from Parkinson's disease and led a quiet life at his Devon home.

He took part, briefly, in Paddy Ashdown's campaign in the south west of England during the 1992 general election campaign. But his ghostlike appearance shocked those who had not set eyes on him for some 12 years.

At Westminster, he will be remembered as a flamboyant and witty man who was very much at home in the world of politics. He possessed swagger and was suave and debonair, even foppish like Disraeli, often wearing a brown trilby hat at a rakish angle.

His speeches were fluent, witty and telling, and whenever his name appeared on the House of Commons monitor as "the man on his feet", MPs crowded into the Chamber to listen to one of the finest, funniest and most passionate orators at Westminster.

His friends were shocked at the disintegration of his spirit and collapse of his health after the court case and during his subsequent virtual withdrawal from public life.

But he was said to have retained his barbed sense of humour right into his final days, although his voice became effectively non-existent.

John Jeremy Thorpe was born in April 1929 into a political family. His father and grandfather had been Conservative MPs and his family's connections in public service stretched back to the 14th century with an ancestor serving in Edward II's parliament.

After three years' education in America, he followed the classic English route into politics through Eton and Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union and the Oxford University Liberal Club.

His chosen profession was the law and he served as a barrister until 1960 when his yearning for a political career took priority over all else.

Thorpe was always a committed Liberal despite his Tory family background and he came to notice as an active Young Liberal. His first chance to enter Parliament came in 1955 when he fought - but lost - North Devon.

Four years later, he captured the Tory seat that he was to represent in Parliament for the next 20 years. It was a marginal constituency and he saw his majority in North Devon fluctuate in the various campaigns he fought.

Through his dapper attire and his panache, he brought a degree of colour to the largely grey and drab world of Westminster. His wit and talent for mimicry brought him many friends in politics as well.

Thorpe was a master of the bon mot. Perhaps his most famous was his devastating and memorable critique of the decision by Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan to axe one third of his Cabinet in the "Night of the Long Knives" in July 1962.

"Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his friends for his life," observed Thorpe.

He earned the nickname "Bomber" Thorpe and was roundly condemned by the Tories when, at the 1966 Liberal conference, he suggested that United Nations planes should be used to bomb Rhodesia, then in a state of rebellion against the Crown.

Thorpe, an outstanding figure in the parliamentary party, succeeded Jo Grimond as Liberal leader in 1967 and his nine years in that job saw him close to a share in national power when Ted Heath invited him to join the Conservatives in a coalition government in 1974.

His refusal to allow the Liberals to share in what would have been Heath's second administration meant that the Conservatives had to step down and allow Harold Wilson to return to power.

Liberals to this day cannot fathom why, given this unique chance of power-sharing, the party turned it down.

Thorpe presided over the party when the Liberals scored some dramatic by-election victories in the early 1970s, most noticeably at Ely, Ripon, Sutton and Cheam, and Rochdale.

He remained a bachelor until the age of 38 when he married art expert Caroline Allpass in 1968. Ever the showman with an eye for the unusual, he flamboyantly proposed to her at the summit of the Post Office Tower - now the BT Tower - in London.

The couple had a son, Rupert, who was born a year later.

But Thorpe's life was shattered in June 1970 when his wife was killed in a car crash at Basingstoke, Hampshire, as she was driving from their home in North Devon to join him in London.

He overcame the tragedy and remarried in 1973. His second wife was Marion, Countess of Harewood, former wife of the Earl of Harewood, who loyally stuck by him through all the tribulations that were to follow.

Thorpe's private life hit the headlines later that year. That was the start of six remorseless years of media interest in his affairs that culminated in the calamitous Old Bailey trial.

He was a non-executive director of the London and County Securities merchant bank. The bank owned a finance company which came under fire for charging high interest on mortgage loans.

Thorpe faced intense pressure as a result of his link with the bank and he eventually resigned as a director. The affair led to questions about the other business interests of the Liberal leader.

Politicians are unlucky to face one scandal, be it of a financial or sexual nature. Thorpe's misfortunes were even worse. HIs business dealings were as nothing compared to the notorious Scott affair, which cost him his job as Liberal leader and reduced his career to tatters.

Thorpe first met the homosexual Norman Scott in 1961 and soon after Scott claimed they had a sexual relationship. Thorpe always fiercely denied this.

Scott continued to make the allegations about Thorpe in letters to various people, including to Thorpe's mother.

The affair simmered for several years but finally boiled over in 1975 when Scott's dog was shot on Exmoor and when he (Scott) appeared in court at Barnstaple charged with obtaining social security payments by fraud.

Scott claimed in court he was being hounded because of his sexual relationship with Thorpe. By this stage, Thorpe was becoming desperately worried - and with some justice - about how far the accusations and allegations would develop.

He knew full well that the press would not let go. Indeed, the newspapers later revealed that retainer payments had been made to Scott in the late 1960s by a third party but with Thorpe allegedly reimbursing the money.

The affair would not go away, and it eventually forced Thorpe to resign as Liberal leader in 1976. But even his resignation failed to lay the matter to rest.

The next highly damaging disclosure was that the man who shot Scott's dog claimed that "a leading Liberal supporter" had paid him £5,000 to kill Scott.

A police inquiry led to the arrest of Thorpe and three other men on a charge of conspiring to murder Scott. Thorpe faced a further charge of incitement to murder Scott.

They first appeared in court in Minehead in 1978 and were committed for trial at the Old Bailey the following year.

Thorpe managed to get the start of the trial delayed so he could fight his North Devon seat at the general election of May 1979. But the scandal surrounding him was by now on such a scale that the electors decided to switch their allegiance from Thorpe. Thus, his 20-year Westminster career ended in defeat by the Conservative candidate.

That was the first major blow to his career, which was finally killed off by subsequent events.

The 31-day trial at the Old Bailey made headline news, with his acquittal on both charges coming after the jury spent 52 hours considering their verdicts.

Although he left the court a free man, he was by then a broken and pathetic figure, who had lost his previous zest. He faded from the public's gaze and never returned to the political stage, even though half-hearted gestures were made in his direction that he should be given a life peerage. But it all came to naught.

He died a man whose massive political potential remained unfulfilled and who will be remembered only for the scandal and squalor that surrounded his name.

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