Appropriately for the dog days of British politics, there’s plenty of canine activity in this neatly groomed account of the bizarre circumstances behind the murder plot which cost the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe his job and his debonair reputation in the 1970s.
First yelps from the kennel came from the Honourable Brecht Van de Vater’s five springer spaniels. Ostensibly they added a veneer of respectability to their owner’s comfortable Cotswolds existence. But like many of the characters involved, appearances were illusory. His real name was Norman Vater, the son of a Welsh miner and an undisclosed bankrupt.
In 1960 he received a postcard from Thorpe (the background to their friendship is unclear) who, having learnt that Princess Margaret was engaged to his Eton contemporary, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, wrote, ‘What a pity. I rather hoped to marry one and seduce the other.’
Vater shared this mildly incriminating communication with his good-looking, if emotionally disturbed, stable lad, Norman Josiffe, describing it, and 30 more letters in the same hand, as his ‘insurance policy’. A few days later Thorpe visited Vater’s house ‘Squirrels’ and took a fancy to Josiffe. He gave him his card and invited him to call if he ever needed help.
Next dog to growl was Mrs Tish, Josiffe’s Jack Russell. After falling out with Vater and embarking on an unsettled period which ended in a mental institution, Josiffe took up Thorpe’s offer. He had filched those letters, which John Preston credulously suggests he intended to return to their writer.
In November 1961 Josiffe arrived at the House of Commons with Mrs Tish. The Liberal leader took him (under an assumed name, of course) to stay with his mother, a formidable woman who sported a monocle and enjoyed cigars.
After Josiffe went to bed, accompanied by Mrs Tish, he was surprised to find Thorpe at his door. Addressing him as ‘Poor Bunny’, Thorpe proceeded to bugger him in a manner graphically described by Preston. So began an exploitative affair, which involved Thorpe writing further compromising letters, including one which read ‘Bunnies can (and will) go to Paris.’
When, as often happened with Josiffe, matters went wrong, he claimed to have been infected by the ‘virus of homosexuality’ and threatened to expose Thorpe. (This was before the law on gay sex was liberalised in 1967.)
So began the cycle of deception and recrimination which ended in 1975 with a hitman being hired to murder the blabbing, unpredictable Josiffe (who now called himself Scott), but only managing to kill his latest four-legged companion, Rinka, a Great Dane, on the fringes of Exmoor.
Along the way Thorpe enlisted the help of fellow Liberal MP Peter Bessell, initially to ward off Scott and retrieve his letters, and then to look into bumping him off in what he casually called the ‘Scottish Matter’ or ‘Ultimate Solution’. After ‘Rinkagate’, Auberon Waugh’s Dog Lovers’ Party added to the entertainment of an increasingly barking affair.
Thorpe and three others were eventually charged with conspiracy to murder. But his barrister George Carman skilfully exposed both Bessell and Scott as unreliable witnesses, the prosecution was poor and the judge directed proceedings with laughable partiality towards Thorpe, who played up his establishment links and was acquitted.
Preston is alive to the story’s absurdities. When Scott married and fathered a son, he took revenge on his mother by dressing another dog, a whippet called Emma, in a bonnet, placing it in the baby’s pram, and watching her alarm when it leapt out. Can this be true? To add to the sense of strangely malevolent English farce, his wife’ssister was married to the comic actor Terry-Thomas, who specialised in playing cads.
For all his pleasing authorial touches, Preston adds little to a well-bruited story. He relies heavily (but it’s not clear where) on input from Bessell, Scott and Carman’s son. This leads him to recycle some myths — one being that, following a ruling by Charles II, no dogs except King Charles spaniels are allowed on House of Commons premises. So Mrs Tish was parked with a nearby anti-vivisectionist society until Thorpe interceded with the Serjeant at Arms to make her an honorary King Charles. Nice tale but, as its website confirms, the House has no such regulation.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Andrew Lycett has written biographies of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas.