Jack Straw looked acutely uncomfortable. He was standing in the doorway of his tall Victorian house in Islington's Battledean Road, scruffy on the outside, plush inside. He was casually dressed in sandals and cords, saying he had hoped for a quiet evening. It was May 1976, and his visitors were Roger Courtiour and myself, both BBC journalists. He ushered us to his upstairs front room. We sat. He stood.
Mr Straw began by lying. 'I know nothing of a missing file,' he said.
Surely he knew of the missing DHSS file belonging to Norman Scott, the gay lover of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe? Mr Straw changed tack. 'I cannot say anything because of the Official Secrets Act.'
Hang on, we said. We knew that Barbara Castle had spoken to him about this file a few days ago. At this point Mr Straw changed tune altogether. 'Yes I know of a missing file,' he said, and repeated that he was bound by the Official Secrets Act. Then why did he lie when we first arrived? Straw replied: 'I am not compromised personally in this matter.' Looking distraught, he promised to take advice and to contact us within two or three days. He never did.
So concluded our first, unsatisfactory attempt to get the truth out of a man who would go on to become the present Foreign Secretary. He was then a special adviser to Barbara Castle, social services secretary, and there is overwhelming evidence that he had used his position to investigate the records of a private citizen for what can only have been party political advantage. He had been looking into the affairs of Norman Scott because in January that year, in a Barnstaple courtroom, the male model announced the curious fact that his National Insurance stamp had been paid by his employer, Jeremy Thorpe.
Thorpe had been his gay lover, said Scott, and had tried to have him murdered (though the hitman, you will recall, succeeded only in killing the Great Dane, Rinka). Scott added that the truth of what he was saying could be confirmed by consulting his DHSS file. It was immediately obvious that whoever availed himself of that file would have the fate of Jeremy Thorpe, the charismatic Liberal leader, in his hands. Labour set about secretly going through the records, and the bright young man charged with doing the devilling was Jack Straw.
How do we know? Because we had it from no less an authority than Harold Wilson. I remember him drawing his chair closer as he spoke. 'I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room,' said Wilson to Courtiour and myself. 'Sometimes I speak when I'm asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.'
This bizarre conversation took place at Wilson's London home: 5 Lord North Street on 12 May 1976, shortly after the Labour prime minister had astonished the country by announcing his resignation. Now the former prime minister plotted revenge against his enemies, real or imaginary. He was the victim of an MI5 'dirty tricks' campaign, he said, and cited a string of 'sinister burglaries' and 'illegal buggings'.
He wanted to expose Whitehall malfeasance, said the self-styled big fat spider, and he urged us to investigate the Jeremy Thorpe-Norman Scott affair. Wilson claimed that this was fomented by a right-wing MI5 faction anxious to bring down the Liberal leader. Their real aim, he added, was to smear him and topple his Labour government.
He liked Thorpe, he said. The Liberal was a good mimic, whose gifts had shone at No. 10 parties. Wilson had publicly sided with him as the Scott scandal broke. But it was important to establish whether Thorpe was telling the truth. So he had ordered his own secret Downing Street investigation into the Thorpe affair. He did this, he claimed, because MI5 would 'tell him nothing'. While Wilson and Lady Falkender monitored the inquiry's progress at No. 10, he put a man on the case, one who knew at firsthand the threat Thorpe represented, after standing as the Labour candidate at Tonbridge.
Like Wilson, the Labour adviser in question remembered the grim possibility of a Tory/Liberal pact of the kind Edward Heath and Thorpe almost agreed after the cliffhanger 1974 election. 'I know the person who did the devilling after dark,' said Wilson, adding that the man had visited government offices 'after hours' searching for Scott's file.
The nocturnal official, said Wilson, was Jack Straw, then working for Barbara Castle. He had told a reluctant Castle to 'get Jack Straw' involved. He wanted a Labour party aficionado he could trust, not a Whitehall civil servant or MI5 official. Straw, apparently without qualms, agreed to go a-delving for Wilson. It must have been a golden moment for the ambitious young barrister and an opportunity to impress the prime minister, and Lady Falkender, with his skill as a fixer.
We are now told by Wilson's former press secretary, Joe Haines, that Straw was simply being used. Wilson's real aim was to smear Thorpe. In his new book, Glimmers of Twilight, Haines says Wilson wanted ammunition from government records and was prepared to use it to destroy Thorpe, and stop him joining forces with Edward Heath. Haines is a powerful witness; and Straw's 'devilling' certainly proved successful. Scott's social security documents surfaced and Straw penned a detailed summary of their contents for Wilson. Significantly, it included unchallengeable evidence of a longstanding gay relationship between Thorpe and Scott at a time, in the early 1960s, when homosexuality was still a serious criminal offence. Thorpe, if publicly shown to be a liar, was politically finished.
Marcia Falkender told us that Straw got his hands on not just one Scott file but several. They were bound in green folders. One of them, she recalled, was the department's confidential political digest of the Thorpe-Scott case. She went through the letters, documents and other papers, copied the files and kept a set at home. 'Straw had also digested the whole case,' says Lady Falkender. 'It set out all the political ramifications.'
Later, Wilson rang us and begged us not to use Jack Straw's name. 'Look, I saw Jack Straw. He's very worried.... If he were mentioned in this context, even though it was under prime ministerial direction, he thinks he will be finished.' We agreed - until now.
Mr Straw said at the weekend: 'Wilson had asked for Scott's file because he wanted to protect Thorpe and feared that Scott might smear Thorpe.' He refused to say why MI5 officers had questioned him about Cabinet Office leaks in 1976, which confirmed that Thorpe had paid Scott's stamps, and which were so lethal to the Liberal leader.
Mr Straw added: 'Barbara [Castle] told me at the time that Mr Wilson did not believe Jeremy Thorpe was homosexual nor that he had had an affair with Norman Scott.'
Meanwhile, in Devon, Norman Scott is seeing lawyers over Straw's undeclared interest in his social security file records, demanding to know why the Foreign Secretary secretly went through his files, wanted such information, and to what purpose it was put. 'And, at the end of the day, I'm the aggrieved party,' says Scott. 'Never forget that in this tawdry tale a paid assassin using Liberal party funds tried to murder me.'