Howard Croft column: A political scandal that gripped the whole nation

Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party in the 1970s on his way to trial.
Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party in the 1970s on his way to trial.

I have only fragments of memories of the notorious Jeremy Thorpe scandal that led to his acquittal at trial on charges of conspiracy to murder and incitement to murder. Now, having read A Very English Scandal, by John Preston (Penguin Viking), I know why; when the events leading up to the trial became public during the trial itself I was working in Africa and largely unaware of what was happening back home in England.

Briefly, Thorpe, a prominent Liberal politician with his eyes on the Party leadership, was being threatened with exposure by one Norman Josiffe, also known as Norman Scott, a male model and stable lad, a vain fellow, fond of being noticed; he was alleging that he and Thorpe had had a homosexual relationship. Such exposure would have been disastrous for Thorpe and for the Liberal Party. The back story was that attempts were being made to decriminalise homosexuality, which eventually succeeded. Thorpe and his inner group of supporters tried to neutralise Scott/Josiffe, with money and help with his career, but when all failed Thorpe decided that the only solution was to have him bumped off.

The cast of characters was large, but the main players were without exception (and I include the trial judge), either inadequate, flawed, feckless, unhinged, intoxicated or, had a combination of these disadvantages. Thorpe gathered about himself an inner core of alleged co-conspirators – a kitchen cabinet if you like – I say “alleged” because they were all, to the surprise of all, acquitted. They were: Peter Bessell, a Liberal MP, a serially failed businessman, much married and divorced and a notorious philanderer; John Holmes, hopelessly in thrall to Thorpe and thought by Bessell to be intellectually low-wattage; George Deakin, a supplier of one-armed bandits.

This improbable gang of desperadoes set about identifying and engaging a suitable hit man. They chose Andrew Newton, a pilot employed by a small airline. A number of methods of killing Scott were discussed, including shooting, poisoning and breaking his neck. Thorpe favoured the latter on the grounds that it was easy to do. Newton was what my mother would have called “a bit of a drinker”. At his own earlier trial for attempted murder (found guilty) he told the court that his explanation of his behaviour was confused because “after sixteen pints the world looks different”.

He was duly despatched by his handlers to make contact with his proposed victim, Scott. He was not immediately successful. Having been told that Scott could be found living in or near Barnstable in Devon, he set off for Dunstable in Bedfordshire where after much sleuthing he understandably failed to run his quarry to earth. After sixteen pints Devon and Bedfordshire may well look alike. Newton asked his friends to call him “Gino”, but instead they had their own nickname for him – Chicken Brain; this was not meant maliciously, he explained in court, but a reasonable reflection of his intellectual wattage.

Eventually, the would-be assassin made contact with his target and arranged a meeting at a posh a Kensington hotel to which he, Newton, took with him a chisel concealed in a bunch of flowers. His plan was to “bend it over the head” of his intended victim. The judge at Thorpe’s trial, Mr Justice Cantley, struggled with the concept of a man taking flowers to a meeting with another man.

Newton, having equipped himself with a handgun, finally lured Scott onto a remote West Country moor where he first shot and killed Scott’s dog (Rinka), but when he fired at Scott himself the gun jammed, giving his intended victim the chance to leg it over the heather and escape. It is notable how many characters in this farcical enterprise were educated at Eton and/or Oxford. Thorpe (Eton and Trinity College, Oxford) was defended by George Carman QC (Balliol College, Oxford), a hectic fellow himself, got Thorpe off with a masterly closing address to the jury. When sat down, Thorpe passed him a note that read: “Well rowed, Balliol!”

Two lesser and blameless players contributed their names to the comic novel flavour of this whole affair: Detective Superintendant Proven Sharpe, who was part of the investigation, and Mrs Kettle, a domestic science teacher, who was foreman of the jury that tried Thorpe. I kid you not.

If you want a read that will have you hooting with laughter, try John Preston’s. What I have given you here is just a sample.