Lib Dem leaders and former colleagues pay tribute to Jeremy Thorpe

Big Ben, Westminster

Jeremy Thorpe, who brought the Liberal party to the brink of coalition government in 1974 but resigned amid scandal soon after, has died aged 85 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, his son Rupert has announced.

Former colleagues paid tribute. Lord Steel of Aikwood, who succeeded him as party leader, said: “He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged – whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for ‘mains, drains and a little bit of light’” or in Africa, where he was a resolute fighter against apartheid.”

Nick Clegg, who attended Thorpe’s 80th birthday party, said: “Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and resolve were the driving force that continued the Liberal revival that began under Jo Grimond. “Jeremy oversaw some of the party’s most famous byelection victories and his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign for Britain’s membership of the Common Market were ahead of his time.”

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader, said: “Jeremy Thorpe’s enforced resignation as leader of the Liberal party and his subsequent departure from parliament should not obscure the fact that in his day he was an outstanding parliamentarian with a coruscating wit, and a brilliant campaigner on the stump whose interest and warmth made him a firm favourite with the public.”

From the age of 38, Thorpe led the Liberals for nine years. Between 1967 and 1976, surviving a poor performance in the 1970 general election, he turned the Liberals from a tiny party of six MPs into a small one of 11. In the 1974 general election, Thorpe played up his relative youthfulness by vaulting a security barrier wearing his trademark trilby.

The Liberals made a breakthrough, winning 19% of the vote (then a postwar record) and got 14 MPs. Although Ted Heath had not won a majority, he had won the popular vote and refused to resign. Thorpe went to Downing Street for secret coalition talks with Heath (at one point being smuggled into No 10).

The talks eventually collapsed as the Liberals could not stomach coalition with the Tories and feared being tainted by Heath, whom even the Spectator was calling a “squatter” in No 10.

It was the closest to actual government the third party had come for decades, with the failure of the talks bringing a minority Labour government led by Harold Wilson.

Two years after that walk up Downing Street, Thorpe resigned as leader of the party after being accused of conspiracy to murder a former model, Norman Scott, who claimed to be a former lover. Scott had been out walking his great dane, Rinka, and, though he survived, the animal was killed. Thorpe was acquitted on all charges in 1979, but had by then lost his seat and his party.

Less prurient charges against him were that, despite his success in taking his party to 6 million votes (19% of those cast) in February 1974 – the vote fell back in October’s second election – Thorpe had allowed all sorts of rackety characters to become candidates and MPs, an oddball crew that David Steel and Paddy Ashdown would take years to refashion as an effective party. “Cronies” and “sleaze” still cling to his reputation and money drained from the party coffers.

Not long after the end of the trial, Thorpe was found to have Parkinson’s disease and retired from public life. For many years the disease has been at an advanced stage. However, in 1997 he visited the Liberal Democrat party conference and was given a standing ovation by party members, and he attended the funeral of Roy Jenkins in 2003.

He had married an interior decorator, Caroline Allpass, in 1968 – their son Rupert was born in the following year – but she was killed in a car accident outside Basingstoke, driving alone and fast from the constituency shortly after the 1970 election. How much of a double life their leader led sexually, fellow Liberals were – and remain – unsure.

Some senior figures presume that the liaison with Norman Scott – Thorpe blamed the scandal on the apartheid regime’s secret service in South Africa – which eventually surfaced was by no means the first. But in 1983 he married again to the concert pianist Marion Stein. Fortified by their shared love of music, the marriage was a success, with Marion a fierce defender of her ailing spouse until her own death this year.

Powered by article was written by Mark Tran and Michael White, for The Guardian on Friday 5th December 2014 01.03 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010