Seductio Ad Absurdum

What was it like to be wined and dined by Jeremy Thorpe?

Marigold Johnson

Jeremy Thorpe: Devious and dangerous (©KEYSTONE/STRINGER VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Two scoundrels emerge from this wonderfully readable new account of the Thorpe scandal. First: Jeremy himself was clearly a far more devious and dangerous man than his contemporaries realised. Second: Peter Bessell, ex-congregationalist preacher and Liberal MP, competes as Thorpe’s fascinated accomplice, sexually and financially amoral.

Bessell it was, in 1965, who obtained huge donations to the Liberals which went straight into his own pocket, or sometimes to the third villain in this scandalous tale, Norman Jossiffe (later Scott). Thousands of pounds came from sources as respectable as the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Speaker George Thomas, the Wolverhampton-born, Bahamas-based millionaire Jack Hayward and the wealthy cleric Timothy Beaumont.

To return to Thorpe: in 1960 he boasted to Bessell, on hearing of Princess Margaret’s engagement to Tony Armstrong-Jones, that he had hoped to “marry one and seduce the other”. (He was considered but rejected as his fellow Old Etonian’s best man because MI5 already knew of his homosexual tendencies.) Privately, Thorpe already called himself 80 per cent gay — not a term then in common use except in the US — but Leo Abse’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality did not become law until 1967.

Discussing heterosexuality with Bessell (“How the hell do you fuck girls?”), Thorpe admitted he’d “gone out briefly” with a girl at Oxford in 1950. I was that girl, fresh from boarding school and now a scholar at Lady Margaret Hall, keen to meet Oxford’s elite (all male, of course). Jeremy was President of the Union and his instant charm worked, so I was wined and dined a few times. We even kissed — although, as I told the author, it was the most chaste kiss I’ve ever had in my life. On one occasion I recall nervously coughing and took a bite out of my wine glass. Huge embarrassment for me, but kindly laughs from Jeremy and his Union bar friends.

John Preston, whose great talent is to bring alive past events as if in a novel, dodges back and forth in Thorpe’s life, tracking his compulsive risk-taking and festering murderous plans. In 1956 he raped 16-year-old Norman Scott in the bedroom next to that of his mother Ursula — another key to his life. She wore a monocle, smoked cigars, ignored two daughters to give all to Jeremy, never divulging what she knew or guessed of his behaviour. We learn nothing of his father, a Tory MP in Manchester, who died at 51 when his son was 15. His godmother Megan Lloyd George surely encouraged Jeremy’s admiration for her father’s Liberal politics, and at Oxford Thorpe rapidly took over the Liberal Club.

The book gives Thorpe credit during his meteoric rise to lead his party (aged 37) for firmly opposing apartheid and the Smith takeover in Rhodesia, but already the obsession with Scott had begun. How to rid himself of this blackmailer, a crazy fellow who tried writing about the rape to anyone ready to be shocked? Scott remained homeless and spendthrift all his life, as a male model, in horse dressage, husband and hysteric; his appearance altered accordingly.

At the Thorpe trial, which is very much the focus of this book, both Scott and Bessell were forced into pathetic confessions as liars and fraudsters. Jeremy himself, it will be remembered, was not called to give evidence — a stroke of genius by his erratic, brilliant counsel George Carman. If there is a hero, it is he, gambler and drinker, who could in court behave “like a kindly doctor, teasing out embarrassing symptoms from a sickly patient”, then “out came the scalpel”. Another honest man is Scott’s confessor Father Sweetman, who remained discreet throughout.

Of heroines there is only one, whom I often met in London in the 1980s and 1990s. Jeremy was loved and nursed for 40 years by his second wife Marion, a concert pianist, Viennese and Jewish, the former Countess of Harewood. She bought him a wonderful house by Hyde Park and knew all the facts about her husband but never spoke of them. The generosity of so many casual contacts to Scott and Bessell is oddly echoed by the rogues, too, often lending beds and support when begged — maybe this was to quiet guilty feelings.

The tale — not really so very “English”, I feel, just “Establishment” — is too good to stale. Even the shooting of Scott’s dog Rinka can trigger echoes from those who were not around when it happened. John Preston is the ideal author, having researched for years many minor characters and talked to dozens of well-known political and literary friends and enemies of Thorpe. I would question one detail — Jeremy is first described “wearing a brown Homburg” — his invariable hat was surely a Trilby. As for Scott, he is 75 and lives with 70 hens, five dogs, three horses, a cat, a parrot and a canary. No doubt he is still ready to reveal his own part in the drama.

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