AWC16: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston

Review published on October 19, 2016.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” wrote Mark Twain.

Could it really be possible that a leader of a major political party, a privy counsellor and barrister, would embark upon a clandestine and illegal affair with an unstable, feckless part time model, and years later, faced with disclosure and certain personal ruin by that other party, set in motion a plot to kill him through the help of the assistant treasurer of his party? The latter would contact a business acquaintance, who would contact a fruit machine salesman who would contact an unreliable unemployed airline pilot who would accept a down payment of ten thousands pounds to murder a stranger. The crime is bungled in such an inept way that the model’s dog is shot dead but the gun then misfires with the blackmailing model in its sights.

Novelist, John Preston, ignites the familiar but still extraordinary account of Jeremy Thorpe’s rise and fall with pace, humour and colour. What a story it is too, with a cast of characters that make even Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage seem dull and bland.

Many successful drama and comedy series on television owe their success as much to the secondary, supporting characters as the leading roles. The supporting cast available to John Preston must have seemed heaven sent for a novelist creating a drama out of this compelling tale – Leo Abse MP, colourful campaigner for homosexual law reform, Jack Hayward a very generous millionaire businessman, Andrew Newton, ‘Chicken Brain’, a commercial pilot and George Carman, Thorpe’s barrister, later to represent, Ken Dodd, Robert Maxwell and Elton John. Even Cyril Smith and Jimmy Saville flit in and out of the narrative, leaving an uncomfortable feeling for the reader.

The overriding theme of this book is of a male politician and his fear of being exposed as being actively homosexual – a marked contrast with now when the three leaders of Scotland’s political parties are female, and two are gay. When a politician discloses now that they are gay it is more likely to be greeted with praise than opprobrium. If only Jeremy Thorpe could have anticipated the same response there would be no story. In his favour then, however, was his status as a major figure of the Establishment. Lloyd George’s daughter was his godmother; he was an Old Etonian, barrister and Privy Counsellor with friendships and connections spread far and wide. Ranks closed to protect him all the way to his trial, and the biased summing up of the judge.

As Owen Jones has sought to show in his recent book on the contemporary establishment ‘who you know’ still matters. With Jeremy Thorpe it was not just his social status that mattered. He had a ready wit, oodles of charm and a willingness to take risks. Yes, he flew too close to the sun, but as he fell, what a story he left for John Preston to exploit and tell in such a sparkling manner.

Chris Palmer

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