Entertaining Mr Thorpe

Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe has died aged 85. This piece by James Fenton was originally published in the New Statesman on 6 February 1976. Thorpe stepped down as leader of his party in May 1976.

Jeremy Thorpe waving his hat as he drove away from the House of Commons after being elected the new leader of the Liberal Party in 1976. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
Jeremy Thorpe waving his hat as he drove away from the House of Commons after being elected the new leader of the Liberal Party in 1976. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

Those who live by their image die by their image, and Mr Jeremy Thorpe is no exception. He is a public figure, and very little else. His image has been built up over the last nine years in a series of well-composed photographs: Mr Thorpe, on the eve of the Liberal Assembly, taking a brisk walk along the sea-front; Mr Thorpe doing his exercises; Mr Thorpe vaulting over a traffic barrier; Mr Thorpe, pictured here enjoying a joke with the enormous Mr Cyril Smith; his brown derby hat; his natty suits; his marriage to a countess. On and on, but always roughly the same theme – the irrepressible, the energetic, the likeable Mr Thorpe, the darling of the press, the brilliant mimic, the entertainer. And he is indeed very entertaining: when he mimics some politician, you hardly notice that the performance has begun – his voice and his expressions modulate with perfect ease. There is only one role in which he has failed so far, and it looks as if he will shortly have to give up trying.

That the Liberals should be run by this charming actor-manager is not inappropriate. For a long time they have specialised in novelties and celebrities. Going back a bit, there was a Mr Dominic le Foe, a retired magician. There was Mr Ludovic Kennedy, the celebrated husband of a famous ballerina. There was Mr Robin Day, familiar to his viewers. Mr Peter Hain, the Man You Love To Hate, Mr Clement Freud, the dog-food salesman, and Mr Smith form part of the present repertory group. The last-named, however, has turned out to be much more than just a pretty face. It is he and Mr Grimond, together with circumstances beyond our control, who will finally do for Mr Thorpe.

Mr Grimond’s views are well-known. Just as he has always been in favour of free enterprise, so he has always been in favour of success. There was his famous speech of 1957: ‘The old life-buoys which have kept this party afloat so long are dropping astern, and in the next ten years it is a question of get on or get out, and let us make it get on.’ When, at the end of those ten years, he followed his own philosophy and got out, Mr Grimond’s man was Mr Thorpe. The election, however, was far from convincing: six votes for Mr Thorpe (including Mr Thope’s own vote), three for Mr Eric Lubbock (including Mr Lubbock) and three for Mr Emlyn Hooson (y compris Mr Hooson). The rivals stood down, but when Mr Thrope stood up to address the 1967 Assembly he made very little impression at all. He was supposed to be a member of the Left. He was supposed, indeed, to be to the Left of Mr Grimond. Somehow, however, the Left-wingery failed to materialise. By the next year’s Assembly, he was not only at loggerheads with the ‘Marxist’ Young Liberals. He was also being undermined by the mischievous Mr Grimond.

There was a phrase of Mr Grimond’s about ‘having our teeth in the real meat of power’, which referred to the role that the Liberals should be able to play in the first Wilson government. This phrase became changed in Liberal mythology to ‘the red meat of power’, and was used to refer to an aspiration which soon became obviously impossible. As Mr David Steel charmingly put it: ‘The continuing leftward momentum of public opinion carried us through the 1966 election to emerge with a dozen seats, but for the whole 1966-70 Parliament the red meat had disappeared, with our false teeth embedded in it.’ And where were Mr Thorpe’s teeth during this period? All Mr Steel could say was that, with the Liberal Party neat to bankruptcy, Mr Thorpe was fully occupied in raising funds. Mr Thorpe had spent his whole time handing round the begging bowl. The Liberals were reduced to six seats in 1970. In the following year Mr Thorpe joined London and County Securities, and the allegations of Mr Norman Scott were being investigated by the police, who found them - according to the Daily Mail - totally unreliable.

As a former Liberal Party president, Mr Trevor Jones, remarked, ‘If Jeremy could just believe he was the next prime minister he would get to Number 10.’ It is easy, in retrospect, to see why he could not believe such a thing. He had already apparently given assurances to the parliamentary party that if the sexual allegations were made public and proved damaging to the party he would resign. By the end of 1972 he was also, according to his own version, so unhappy about the publicity surrounding London and County that he wished to resign his directorship. With this double sword of Damocles hanging over his head, he would not only have to be lucky to escape obloquy, he would have to go on being lucky.

For some time, luck was on Mr Thorpe’s side. There were the Rochdale and Sutton and Cheam by-elections in 1972, the annus mirabilis of 1973, and the triumph of winning 6 million votes (although only 15 seats) in February 1974. Even the disappointment of the following October, with the loss of two seats and 700,000 votes, could be said to have been inevitable. The press was indulgent over Mr Thorpe’s business record, and he might even have considered that chapter more or less closed. As for last week’s ‘day of agony’ for Mr Thorpe, there was even a sort of desperate good luck in that, since it looked for a moment as if the while world, for fear of seeming intolerant on the one count (unsubstantiated) would let him off the hook on the other. Saturday was probably Mr Thorpe’s last good day. The Mail, in a front-page story headed ‘Document from missing Lib helps support for Thorpe’, told its readers that the payment of money to Mr Scott had nothing to do with Mr Thorpe, that Mr Peter Bessell ‘in a signed statement to his London solicitors, has said that payments to Scott arose during Mr Bessell’s own association with a woman friend’. On the same day the Mirror, under the banner headline ‘Thorpe’s Hunter’, portrayed the affair as an attempt by South African intelligence, BOSS, to destroy the Liberals. Mr Thorpe at this stage is reported as having been optimistic about his chances of weathering the storm. He was alone in his optimism.

He had reckoned without Mr Grimond, who, over the weekend, returned to his old theme: it was get on (in next month’s by-elections) or get out. Or rather, if the Liberals did not enjoy success in the by-elections, then their leader would have to take the blame ‘whether innocent or guilty’, since ‘the leader of a party which does not get unto office and goes on in the same way is unwise to stay indefinitely’. Where, under such circumstances, could Mr Thorpe turn for support? Not to the parliamentary party, which is now unanimous that he should go some time soon. Certainly not to Mr Smith, who has successfully opposed Mr Thorpe in the past and is a most effective whip. The fact is that the Liberal MPs were dissatisfied with Mr Thorpe before, and had only resisted the temptation to dislodge him because there are too many prospective candidates for the succession.

If the story ended there, it would be possible to envisage Mr Thorpe waiting on until the much-canvassed new election procedures come into effect, remaining long enough for the Liberals to feel that they are not persecuting him. But the story does not end there. Indeed, every day new questions arise. Mr Bessell is phoned in California, and says there was no woman, and no affidavit. It is revealed that an anonymous donor gave Mr Scott £2,500 on election day, February 1974. The next day, Mr Bessell tells the Express that the payment had nothing to do with his love life, and Mail that there was a woman, and an affidavit, and that Mt Scott ‘knew too much about his personal life’. A second court-case is coming up, in which Mr Scott may have another opportunity to speak in court. Too many questions have been raised, and the publicity has been too great. Too great even for Mr Thorpe, who always enjoyed it in the past.

Thorpe resigned in May. He was acquitted of consipracy to murder Scott in 1979.