Home International One of Westminster’s most bizarre political scandals is coming to TV

One of Westminster’s most bizarre political scandals is coming to TV


You'd be hard-placed to find a country that does political scandals as well as England.

But one involving a prominent politician, a jilted former lover, an amateur hitman and the unfortunate death of a dog still manages to read like a work of fiction.

In 1979, the former leader of Britain's Liberal Party Jeremy Thorpe went on trial for conspiracy to murder, accused of hiring a hitman to kill a former gay lover who was threatening to destroy his political career.

The story of his downfall sits right up there with the most bizarre tales to ever come out of Westminster.

John Preston wrote a book about it, A Very English Scandal, which is now being turned into a TV series with Hugh Grant playing the role of Thorpe, and Benjamin Whishaw the former lover.

Thorpe 'had beguiling air of mischief'

The story begins during the 1960s in Britain, a time when Preston says the leaders of the main political parties were "dull plain-looking men without any kind of noticeable charisma".

"Thorpe on the other hand was young, he was good-looking, he was charismatic, he had a very beguiling air of mischief about him which was almost an unknown thing at the time," he said.

Jeremy Thorpe

But Thorpe was also a risk taker. While a sitting MP, he had a series of affairs with men — at a time when homosexual acts were still a crime and could lead to a jail sentence.

Then in the early 1960s he met an 18-year-old stablehand named Norman Josiffe.

"Thorpe was just immediately smitten to him," Preston said.

"They talked for a bit and Thorpe said if you're ever in any trouble, come and see me at the House of Commons and gave him his card.

"It so happened that Josiffe had a tremendous falling out with his employer shortly afterwards, he then had a nervous breakdown, his life basically imploded.

"So he went to see Thorpe. To some degree to throw himself on Thorpe's mercy."

A bungled murder

Thorpe and young Josiffe ended up having an affair, but when the relationship broke off things spiralled out of control.

Josiffe, who was by now known as Norman Scott, struggled to find work and battled depression.

Daily Mirror front page

He blamed many of his hardships on Thorpe and told police about their relationship, handing over copies of personal letters as evidence.

So Thorpe decided it was time to silence his former lover.

By now he was leader of the Liberal Party and had ambitions of being the next prime minister of Britain — and he could not let those ambitions be destroyed by his past.

"He basically proposed having Scott murdered," Preston said.

"And he siphoned 10,000 pounds out of the Liberal Party funds to pay this unbelievably inept hitman to try and kill Scott.

However the hitman only succeeded in killing Scott's dog, Rinka.

"[The hitman] was called Chicken Brain… he shot the dog, then the gun jammed, so he drove off into the night," Mr Preston said.

The police turned up to the scene and Scott once more "poured out his story", blaming his misfortune on Thorpe's mistreatment of him.

How the shooting came to be linked to Thorpe was largely thanks to a serious of coincidences.

External Link: Archival news footage of Jeremy Thorpe at court over the Norman Scott affair.

Rinka's shooting and the accusation against Thorpe by Scott was picked up by an obscure family-run newspaper in Somerset, which Preston said probably had a maximum circulation of 5,000.

"But it just happened that a private eye journalist called Auberon Waugh lived in Somerset, subscribed to this paper, had always hated Thorpe and kind of put two and two together and thought there's something fishy going on here," he said.

"So he did some snooping of his own and the whole thing started to snowball."

In 1979 Waugh ran against Thorpe in the seat of North Devon, representing the Dog Lovers Party. He only got 79 votes, but succeeded in humiliating the sitting MP.

From power to murder in five years

That same year the case against Thorpe went to trial at the Old Bailey.

"It was dubbed the trial of the century, with some justification — I mean only five years earlier Thorpe had been leader of the Liberal Party," Preston said.

"And because the political situation was so chaotic in Britain at the time, for a moment in 1974 it looked as if Thorpe could easily become the de facto deputy prime minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives.

"So he'd gone from having one hand on the reigns of power, to being in the dock accused of a conspiracy and incitement to murder within five years."

However in the end, thanks to a "brilliant barrister" and "raging snob" judge, Thorpe was not found guilty.

"The barrister realised that however overwhelming the evidence against Thorpe appeared to be, it effectively rested on the credibility of three main witnesses," Preston said.

External Link: Archival news footage of Jeremy Thorpe charged with conspiracy to murder.

"And if he could prove that each of those witnesses had lied in the past, then the jury would think if they'd lied in the past, what's to say they're not lying now?

"Also the judge gave this astonishingly pious summing up in which he effectively told the jury they had to acquit Thorpe.

"Which he did I suspect because he was a raging snob — Thorpe was an old member of the establishment and the judge wanted to become a member of the establishment as well."

Preston said he doesn't think there ever was any doubt that Thorpe was guilty.

"He got off, but people just behaved as if he was guilty," he said.

"So for the last 30 years of his life, Thorpe led this kind of strange shadowy existence where all the members of his own party turned their backs on him.

"He was desperate to try and get a peerage because he thought that would actually be his passport back into respectability, but successive prime ministers kept turning him down."

The TV series of A Very English Scandal will screen later this year, and introduce a new generation to a political tragedy that is still hard to fathom.


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