Andrew Lycett

The dog it was that died

John Preston revisits the dog days of British politics when Rinka, compromising letters and conspiracy to murder were the daily headlines

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.

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