Lost leader

In My Own Time

Jeremy Thorpe <em>Politicos, 234pp, £18</em>

The historian Asa Briggs, writing about Jeremy Thorpe's new book, described it as "an anthology rather than an autobiography", adding that he had "greatly enjoyed reading on paper some of the stories which I have heard before". This apparently double-edged remark contains a truism: Jeremy was and is a brilliant raconteur. Reading the book, I, too, found many fascinating and entertaining tales coming to life again, just as I had often heard them round the table in the Members' Dining Room of the House of Commons.

Jeremy Thorpe has indeed had an incredibly interesting and rumbustious life. Born into a well-to-do family - his maternal grandfather a Tory knight of the shires; his father, also a Tory MP, a successful QC - he describes his early encounters with the great and the good, including Lloyd George, as vividly as he does his all-too-brief marriage to Caroline. His writing is remarkably free of bitterness over the tragedies that dogged his career. I myself will never forget that terrible day, just after the 1970 election, when Jeremy, John Pardoe and I were sitting in the Liberal leader's tiny office in the Commons. A police superintendent suddenly arrived, bringing with him the ghastly news of Caroline's car crash. While Jeremy and John stayed behind to make emergency decisions, I was despatched to his London flat to inform the nanny. Their baby son Rupert (now a successful photographic editor) was in his high chair, being fed a boiled egg. I don't think I've ever undertaken such a miserable mission.

But it is in the nature of the man that he bounced back and with resilient courage led the Liberal Party through a series of successful by-elections and into the 1974 general election, when the party vote rose from two to six million.

What were Jeremy's assets? Well, he had an extraordinary flair. The back cover of his book carries a famous photograph of him vaulting a pedestrian barrier, with brown trilby in place and wearing an enormous rosette. His summer tour of the south coast by hovercraft was a brilliant piece of political theatre - or would have been but for the unfortunate weather. He was a natural showman, with style. He was also a considerable orator. He drew and enthused large crowds with a mixture of passion and humour. But in my view his greatest asset - and his largest contribution to British politics - was his organisational skill.

Jo Grimond - my Liberal hero - had brought to the Liberal Party a mixture of intellectual credibility and glamour, but as a political vehicle it was something of a shambles. Jeremy, following in his footsteps, insisted on sorting out the party's finances and putting resources into what we would call "target seats". Even before that, when my own by-election of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles came about, it was Jeremy who helped find the funds to move in half a dozen professional agents to the various Border towns. He took an active part himself as a key supporting speaker, keeping the young candidate enthused; on polling day he drove me round the far-flung polling stations in his Humber.

He surveyed the organisation like a field marshal, ensuring that everyone was in place in each town correctly performing their duties. We toured Hawick, Galashiels, Peebles, Selkirk: all was running efficiently, and the Tories were scarcely visible. But in one small village in the north of the constituency, there was little sign of our campaign - just one placard. The Tories had two gaudily postered caravans outside the polling station, with teams of blue-rosetted ladies and gentlemen dominating the landscape. "I think," Jeremy said, "we'll concede them Romanno Bridge."

The better-organised national party (which I inherited) led to the February 1974 upsurge. He corrects Edward Heath's account of the "coalition discussions" of that period, and I can vouch for the accuracy of his version because I drove him to the second meeting in Downing Street, not mentioned by Heath. We were right not to accept a coalition with a defeated prime minister, one which in any case would have had no parliamentary majority. But those four days were crucial in forcing the party to face up to the reality of possible future partnerships, such as the Lib-Lab pact three years later. (Indeed Heath forecast to me over lunch in his house that Callaghan would come with such an offer in due course.)

In the early 1980s, when the SDP was born, it was the governmental expertise of that party, along with the Liberal grass-roots organisation (especially in local government), that led to the common-sense policies of the Alliance, and then to the merger. In a real sense, therefore, the foundations on which Paddy Ashdown was able to build the Liberal Democrats were laid by Jeremy.

As to the Norman Scott affair, the tabloid mauling and the trial, Jeremy understandably adds little. His political career was ruined, and he is remarkably charitable about his "friends" whose "help" assisted that process. He has since enjoyed the support of Marion, his second wife, and Rupert, and the pleasures of his homes in Devon and Aldeburgh. For me the most moving and remarkable chapter of his slightly disjointed account (the book irritatingly has no index) is the characteristically blunt and brave way he writes about his later years suffering from Parkinson's disease.

He will not go down in history as an especially profound or powerful political figure, but as someone who enlivened the scene and clearly left his mark.

Lord Steel is a former leader of the Liberal Party