A Very English Scandal by John Preston

Jeremy Thorpe once derided Ted Heath as “the plum pudding around which no one has succeeded in lighting the brandy.”

It is a brilliant line. Part of the value of John Preston’s account of the attempt by Thorpe, as Liberal leader, to get a band of dodgy associates to murder his former lover, Norman Scott, is that it restores the comic element to a period whose leading figures were not, generally, remarkable for their wit.

Thorpe, who led the Liberals from 1967 to 1976, had prodigious gifts. He could set the brandy on fire, even at times the Thames. In North Devon, he persuaded poor, rural voters to thrill to his metropolitan style, captured the seat from the Conservatives in 1959 and held it for 20 years.

Compared to the other party leaders – the Gannex-raincoated Harold Wilson and the puddingy Heath – Thorpe was wonderfully amusing. He had the brio of a latter-day Oscar Wilde, and the same reckless propensity to overplay his hand.

Hugh Grant, pictured here as Thorpe, plays him very well in the three-part dramatisation of Preston’s book which finishes tomorrow night on BBC1. That episode will include the trial in 1979 of Thorpe and his three co-defendants at the Old Bailey, where they were acquitted after the judge, Sir Joseph Cantley, had delivered a notoriously unfair summing up, inspiration for one of the funniest of all Peter Cook’s parodies.

Here is Cantley on Scott, whom Thorpe had seduced in the early 1960s and later wished to get killed and dropped down a Cornish tin mine:

“I now turn to the evidence of Mr Norman Scott. You will remember him well. A hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… He is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

Preston remarks in his Acknowledgments that Scott – one of the few participants in this strange, eventful history who is still alive – was “enormously generous with his time”. It is clear that Scott was a vulnerable young man, with serious mental health problems, when Thorpe picked him up, but that he also possessed an independence of mind which disconcerted anyone who expected to be able to control him.

The least known major character in the book is Peter Bessell, a lay preacher, philanderer, Liberal MP and compulsive launcher of doomed business ventures, who fell under Thorpe’s spell, but eventually agreed to give evidence against him, once he realised that Thorpe was setting him up to be the fall guy.

Bessell, played by Alex Jennings in the BBC version, was supposed to stop Scott bothering Thorpe, but discovered this was a goal which could never be attained for very long, though Scott insisted all he was actually trying to do was deal with the problems with his National Insurance card. When it was put to him at the trial that he was hell-bent on destroying Thorpe, he replied that on the contrary, he was merely trying to sort out his National Insurance card: “National Insurance is my lifeblood!”

This becomes one of a number of running jokes in the book. Thorpe and his allies are often trying to retrieve some embarrassing letters which Scott is carrying round in a suitcase, of which copies may or may not have been made. One of these letters, written on House of Commons notepaper and signed “Yours affectionately, Jeremy”, contains the strangely memorable, but to this day somewhat opaque, sentence, “Bunnies can (and will) go to France.”

George Carman, the barrister who made his name by defending Thorpe, set out to break Bessell. By day three he had reduced the witness to such a self-lacerating state that Bessell, with the shame of a lay preacher who had been exposed as a hypocrite, was telling the court, “I have been guilty of quite disgraceful behaviour.”

The Sunday Telegraph had done a deal with Bessell under which he was to be paid £50,000 for a series of six articles if Thorpe was convicted, and £25,000 if Thorpe was acquitted.

Almost unbelievably, the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions had consented to this arrangement, with which Carman made hay. Again and again, while reading Preston’s account, one is amazed to find the truth so much stranger than fiction.

Scott’s dog, Rinka, was shot dead in 1975 on Exmoor by the hitman hired to kill Scott himself, and news of this crime reached the West Somerset Free Press, which reported it under the headline: “The Great Dane Mystery: Dog-in-a-Fog Case Baffles Police”.

By fits and starts the trail led from Rinka back to Thorpe, who in 1976 had to resign as Liberal leader, and in 1979 was charged with conspiracy and incitement to commit murder. He managed to get the trial deferred while he stood and lost in the 1979 general election, during which Auberon Waugh ran as the candidate for the Dog Lovers’ Party, receiving 79 votes after Thorpe obtained an injunction preventing the distribution of Waugh’s manifesto.

At Westminster, senior members of other parties rallied round, at least at first. Wilson, while Prime Minister, suggested preposterously that the South Africans were to blame. This and Thorpe’s acquittal are generally regarded as “the Establishment” seeking to protect one of its own, and no doubt there was an element of that.

But it is hard now to remember quite how charming Thorpe was. He had an astounding ability to make people feel good about helping him to cover things up.

Through these pages stalk many other sinister figures, including Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith. The 1970s were a very strange time, and anyone who imagines our legal system has never been more deficient than it is now should read Preston’s often very funny book.