A Very English Scandal by John Preston

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by [Preston, John]I started reading this just as the election predicted to be a Tory landslide inexplicably resulted in a hung parliament, the latest in a long series of political shocks and surprises that have frequently bordered on the farcical. However, if you think Westminster has never been madder than it currently is, you really need to read A Very English Scandal, an account of the time the married leader of one of the three main parties stood trial for trying to arrange to have his male ex-lover murdered. 

I was vaguely aware of the Jeremy Thorpe case, but it's often described as Thorpe trying to arrange the murder of a male model who blackmailed him after an affair, and that had been more or less my understanding of what happened. In fact, Norman Scott was primarily a troubled drifter who was horribly taken advantage of by older, powerful men at a time when homosexual activity was still illegal (Thorpe and a friend groomed this vulnerable young man, and Scott's account of his first sexual encounter with Thorpe essentially describes a rape) and then, as a result of some confusion over his National Insurance card which remained in Thorpe's possession, was frequently unable to work.

Scott, whose mental health was always fragile, understandably became distressed at his attempts to make a new start constantly being thwarted, and became upset and resentful at his shocking treatment.

This is an enlightening and often startling account of Thorpe's brief 'relationship' with Scott (formerly known as Norman Josiffe) and his largely inept attempts to cover it up with the help of various members of the Liberal Party's old boys' network, culminating in an attempt on Scott's life and a trial so scandalously unfair that it resembled something from a comedy sketch.

This is a brilliantly well-written book which, as well as being meticulously researched and balanced, is also remarkably witty and has the pace and structure of a political thriller. The real events of this book are often so incredible that they are beyond satire, and the main players could easily be characters in a comic novel. Thorpe's sense of entitlement is breathtaking and his friends, particularly the long-suffering Peter Bessell, seemed to view his predicament as an old chum getting into a bit of a spot rather than a man conspiring to murder someone who hasn't really done a thing wrong except tell the truth and repeatedly ask for his own National Insurance card back. People in this book constantly seem to run out of vast amounts of money and yet never seem to live a lifestyle that's anything other than lavish; cheques are constantly written by old friends to bail them out and nobody seems to have any sense of responsibility whatsoever.

This is a complicated saga of clandestine meetings, absurd attempts to steal incriminating letters, ludicrous financial improprieties, sham marriages, inept assassins and appalling institutional homophobia. Preston has an excellent eye for character detail that makes every person in the book - whether you've heard of them already or not - seem absolutely fascinating: just read the passages about the peer obsessed with badgers, for instance, and the Scottish Liberal MP who was refused entry to the House of Commons because he only spoke Gaelic and who subsequently became known for the brevity and incomprehensibility of his speeches.

I can't recommend this book highly enough; although the injustice of it all will infuriate you, it's an exceptional account of a political scandal and an establishment cover-up like no other.