Obituary: Jeremy Thorpe, politician

Jeremy Thorpe, politician. Picture: Getty
Jeremy Thorpe, politician. Picture: Getty
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WHEN he took over as leader of the Liberal Party from the great Scot Jo Grimond in 1967, Jeremy Thorpe looked destined for political greatness and front-page headlines.

Jeremy Thorpe, politician.

Born: 29 April, 1929, in Surrey. Died: 4 December, 2014, in London, aged 85.

He never quite reached the former but certainly fulfilled the latter expectations. Instead of holding the balance of power, becoming a cabinet minister and possibly a senior member of a coalition government, Thorpe’s career ended in tatters, in stark contrast to his foppish, dandy image. Allegations of a homosexual affair with a male model, Norman Scott – in the days when that was illegal and considered shocking – followed by charges that he had sought to have Scott killed by a hit man, put paid to his ambitions. And “ambitious” was the adjective most used to describe him from his days as a student at Trinity College, Oxford, until his downfall.

Thorpe’s 1979 trial at the Old Bailey, for “conspiracy and incitement to murder” was billed in the media as “the trial of the century”. If that were not enough, the prosecuting counsel, with only a hint of hyperbole, described the politician’s demise as “a tragedy of truly Greek and Shakespearean proportions”.

After a few months, Thorpe was acquitted of the alleged murder conspiracy and he never acknowledged the alleged homosexual affair. But the damage was done. He had already lost his parliamentary seat and been forced to give up leadership of the Liberal Party.

The victims were not only his career but a Great Dane dog called Rinka. Scott said in court that the alleged hit man, former airline pilot Andrew Newton, shot Rinka while he was walking him on Exmoor.

Scott said the alleged gunman’s weapon then jammed, sparing his life. Newton testified that he had “chickened out” of killing Scott, despite a reported £5,000 fee from Thorpe’s Liberal party supporters, and shot the dog instead.

John Jeremy Thorpe was born in Surrey to John Henry Thorpe KC, who became a Tory MP in Manchester immediately after the Great War, and Ursula Norton-Griffiths, daughter of another Tory MP, Sir John “Empire Jack” Norton-Griffiths.

Jeremy Thorpe liked to tell the tale of another ancestor whose head was chopped off by an angry mob in 1371. Jeremy’s godmother was Megan Lloyd George, daughter of the last Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George.

Although he was perhaps as English as it gets, Thorpe liked to say later in life that he was “three-quarters Celt” – his father was born in Cork and his grandfather was a priest in Ireland. Young Jeremy went to Eton but was evacuated during the war. Not for him mixing with working-class London schoolchildren around the country; his family managed to get him to the United States.

Back in London towards the end of the war, Thorpe lived comfortably in Chelsea while not at Eton. He was a keen musician, a decent violinist and a gifted mimic, doing hilarious impressions of the politicians of the time.

At Trinity, friends said his ambition outweighed his ability and that he was always more show than substance, often wearing a waistcoat, a watch-chain and a Derby hat to distinguish himself.

He told fellow students he would become president of the Oxford Law Society, its Liberal Club and the Students’ Union and he gave them the dates on which he would do so. And he did.

However, as one of his contemporaries lyrically wrote after his death: “A faint whiff of sulphur, connected with ballot-rigging, clouded even his election to the presidency of the Oxford Union as long ago as 1951.”

Thorpe graduated with a third-class Law degree and began a career as a barrister 
but saw politics as his natural habitat.

He had, however, rubbed not a few people up the wrong way at Trinity, not least William Rees-Mogg, who would later become editor of The Times. As a very great man once said: “Hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.” Thorpe’s treatment in the media thereafter was, to say the least, unfavourable.

Given his family history, Thorpe would have been a shoo-in Tory in many constituencies, probably a leading politician of his era, quite possibly a future prime minister. As a young man, however, he had fallen under the influence of family friend David Lloyd George, who became something of a hero to him. Thorpe became a Liberal and dreamed of getting the party back to its glory days.

Despite his dandy dress – he cut a fine figure down the King’s Road, Chelsea, to the sound of the Kinks from boutiques – and his privileged upbringing, he had within him a fighter for equality and human rights, not least in Africa, where he spoke out prodigiously for African self-determination in the wake of colonial rule.

He first stood – unsuccessfully – as a Liberal candidate for North Devon. Four years later, however, in 1959, he won the same seat at the age of 30. The world was about to be his oyster. He held the seat for 20 years until Hurricane Maggie came into town.

In the meantime, when was leader of the Liberal Party, he had turned down a coalition offer from Tory prime minister Edward Heath, whom Thorpe compared to a plum pudding.

Had Thorpe accepted, including the cabinet post of foreign secretary that Heath had offered, the world would be a different place, for better or worse.

He often said that it was the “shame of privilege” that drew him into politics. He recalled that, as a child, his mother had ordered a servant up from the basement to put coal from a scuttle onto the salon fireplace. “I can get that, mama,” he responded. And yet, the criticism from his fellow Oxford students echoed throughout his life: “No ideas, no ideals, no policies, pure ambition.”

Jeremy Thorpe married his first wife Caroline in 1968 and they had a son, Rupert, the following year. Soon afterwards, Caroline was killed in a road accident and Thorpe married Marion in 1973. She died earlier this year.

Jeremy Thorpe suffered from Parkinson’s disease in his later years. He is survived by his son Rupert, a photographer.

PHIL DAVISON