Former Liberal Party Jeremy Thorpe dies at 85

Jeremy Thorpe in his heyday at Westminster. Picture: Getty

Jeremy Thorpe in his heyday at Westminster. Picture: Getty

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Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, who once stood trial at the Old Bailey for ­conspiracy to murder, has died. He was 85.

Mr Thorpe headed the party in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s for more than three decades.

Tributes were last night paid to the controversial leader whose career ended in disgrace.

Lord Steel, who succeeded him as party leader, said: “He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged, whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for ‘mains, drains and a little bit of light’ or Africa, where he was a ­resolute fighter against apartheid.”

Mr Thorpe had a glittering political career, helping to ­revive the Liberals in the 1970s.

But he was brought down by a sensational court case in which he was accused of ­conspiracy and incitement to murder former male model Norman Scott. After his acquittal in 1979, he was rarely seen in public. Mr Thorpe resigned as ­Liberal leader after allegations of an affair with Mr Scott, at a time when male homosexual acts were illegal. A man called Andrew Newton then claimed he had been paid by a leading Liberal supporter to kill Scott because of his blackmail threats, but said he had lost his nerve and during an incident on ­Exmoor in 1975 shot Scott’s dog, Rinka, instead.

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Along with three other men, Thorpe was charged with ­conspiracy to murder, but all four walked free from court in 1979 after a 31-day trial, with the jury taking 52 hours to acquit them. This came after Mr Justice ­Cantley’s summing-up in which he ­denounced Mr Scott as a crook and “an accomplished sponger, very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy”.

The court case was halted for eight days at Thorpe’s request so he could contest his Devon seat in the May general election. He was heavily defeated.

The episode resurfaced when one of Mr Thorpe’s co-defendants wrote an article for the News of the World, claiming the former party leader had incited him to murder Mr Scott.

Mr Thorpe’s solicitor issued a rebuttal and the director of public prosecutions said there was no question of another trial.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “Jeremy Thorpe’s enforced resignation as leader of the ­Liberal Party and his subsequent departure from parliament should not obscure the fact that in his day he was an outstanding parliamentarian with a coruscating wit, and a brilliant campaigner on the stump whose interest and warmth made him a firm favourite with the public.”

He added that Mr Thorpe “bore his long illness with courage and determination” and never lost his “consuming interest” in politics.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and resolve were the driving force that continued the Liberal revival that began under Jo Grimond.

“Jeremy oversaw some of the party’s most famous by-election victories and his ­involvement with the anti-apartheid movement and campaign for ­membership of the Common Market were ahead of his time.”

Liberal Democrat former minister Sir Nick Harvey, who represents Mr Thorpe’s former constituency of North Devon, said: “Jeremy Thorpe was a colossal figure in the revival of the Liberal cause in post-war Britain and today’s Lib Dem politicians continue to feast on his legacy.

“His charisma, energy and ­innovative campaigning lit up his generation of British politics. He was the first to embrace fully the television age, the first to hit the campaign trail in a helicopter and both the first and last to deploy a hovercraft.

“He would have shone in whatever walk of life he chose, but it was to the lasting benefit of Liberalism that he rejected the Conservatism of his ancestors and devoted himself to progressive causes at home and abroad.”

Mr Thorpe’s son, Rupert, said the politician “was a devoted husband to my two mothers: Caroline, who died tragically in 1970, and Marion who passed away in March and had raised me and stood by him through everything. His grandchildren and great grandchildren will miss him dearly, as will I.”

In an interview in 2009, the ailing Thorpe reflected on his downfall. “If it happened now,” he said, “I think the public would be kinder.”

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