‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Jeremy Thorpe, horsemeat and by-election victories

Jeremy Thorpe has died at the age of 85. He was Liberal Party leader from 1967 to 1976. He is best remembered for the fact that he was tried and acquitted at the Old Bailey for conspiracy to murder – a fairly remarkable event for a former party leader.

However, Thorpe holds several other claims to fame, some of which resonate strangely with current events. Jeremy Thorpe was the only party leader whose mother had a job cutting up horsemeat, as he revealed in his book ‘In my own time’.

Thorpe’s electoral record as party leader was a rollercoaster. He took over the leadership after Jo Grimond had led the party back to a total of 12 MPs in 1966. In Thorpe’s first election as leader, in 1970, the party’s representation was halved. Six Liberal MPs remained – and three of these had tiny majorities. However, over the next few years the party achieved some stunning by-election victories at Rochdale, Sutton and Cheam, Ripon, Isle of Ely and Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the 1973 by-election victor, Sir Alan Beith is still the MP.

The following general election in February 1974 saw the Liberals win 14 seats. This was one of only two post-war elections where the party with the most votes was not the party with the most seats. In February 1974 the Conservatives gained a larger share of the vote than the Labour Party, but fewer seats. (In 1951 the opposite happened.) The resulting hung parliament led to abortive Lib-Con coalition talks between Conservative leader Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe.

Alan Beith had to face three contests in less than a year at Berwick. He won the seat by a majority of 57 votes in the November 1973 by-election, boosted this to 443 in the February 1974 general election and scraped in again by just 73 votes in October. 41 years later though, he is still the MP.

For the last 35 years Jeremy Thorpe had Parkinson’s disease, which reduced his voice to a whisper, but he did give occasional interviews and he contributed to my biography of his predecessor, Clement Davies.

Jeremy Thorpe should be remembered not just for his appearance at the Old Bailey, but for his coalition negotiations with the Conservatives, his rollercoaster electoral performance and his flamboyant electioneering, which included travelling by hovercraft and his leaping over fences - and the fact that his mother was a wartime horsemeat butcher.

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