He was educated at Eton College and then at Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied Law. He was very politically and socially active at Oxford, becoming Chairman of the Liberal Club and the Law Society and finally becoming President of the Oxford Union in 1951. He was called to the bar in 1954, whilst working as a TV interviewer.
A colourful character, Thorpe was renowned for his assortment of Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and trilby hats, as well as being a noted raconteur and impressionist. He famously commented on the subject of Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life". Critics dismissed him as a political lightweight, but Thorpe was undoubtedly a popular figure.
The 1970 general election was a disaster for Thorpe's Liberals, as their number of MPs slumped from 13 to 6 (with 3, Thorpe included, only surviving on tiny majorities), which led to opponents' jibes that the entire parliamentary party could fit in one taxi -- a joke which was expanded to two taxis after the election of the extremely corpulent Cyril Smith as MP for Rochdale. But between 1972 and 1974, Thorpe led the Liberals to an impressive string of by-election victories, at Rochdale, Sutton and Cheam, Ripon, the Isle of Ely, and Berwick. In the General Election of February 1974, the Liberals ended up with 14 seats, and 19.3% of the vote, with some opinion polls at times even placing the party as high as 30%. This is in contrast to the 8.5% of the vote which the Liberals got in the 1966 General Election, prior to Thorpe's election as leader. The Liberals won 14 seats in the hung parliament which arose from the election, but with a large separate Ulster Unionist party, did not quite hold the balance of power.
In the subsequent negotiations with the Conservatives, Thorpe was offered a seat in the Cabinet as Home Secretary by Prime Minister Edward Heath as part of a coalition deal, but declined when it was clear the Liberal Party and many who had voted for it were not enthusiastic about keeping Heath in power. Thorpe pushed for significant commitments toward electoral reform, which Heath could not accede to. Equally damningly, any Conservative-Liberal coalition would still be a few seats short of a majority, meaning the government would be unlikely to survive for long. The prospective coalition therefore collapsed before it started.
In October 1975, while walking a friend's female Great Dane (called "Rinka") on Exmoor, Scott was confronted by Andrew "Gino" Newton, a former airline pilot, who was armed with a gun. Newton shot and killed the dog, which had been lent to Scott for protection, then pointed the gun at Scott, but it apparently failed to go off. The subsequent scandal embroiled Thorpe and became known as "Rinkagate".
Newton was convicted of the offence in March 1976. Scott once again used his Court appearance to air his claims of a relationship with Thorpe, alleging that the latter had threatened to kill him if he spoke about their affair. Scott also sold letters to the press which he claimed to be love letters from Thorpe; one of these included the memorable line "Bunnies can and will go to France", which supposedly showed Thorpe using his 'pet-name' for Scott in connection with a promise to find Scott a well-paid job in France. The scandal led to Thorpe resigning as leader of the Liberal Party on 9 May, 1976. He was replaced temporarily by his predecessor, the former Leader Jo Grimond and then on a permanent basis by David Steel.
Upon his release from prison in April 1977, Andrew Newton revived the scandal by claiming that he had been hired as a hit-man to kill Norman Scott. On August 4, 1978, Thorpe was accused along with David Holmes (deputy Treasurer of the Liberal Party), George Deakin (a night club owner) and John Le Mesurier (a carpet tycoon, neither the Dad's Army actor nor the well-known GB athletics coach of the 1950s/60s) of conspiracy to murder. Thorpe was also separately accused of inciting Holmes to murder Scott.
Thorpe's political career could not withstand the scandal, and he lost his parliamentary seat in the general election of 1979. His trial had been scheduled to take place a week before polling day, but he successfully applied for a fortnight's delay to fight the election, and then stood trial a week after losing his seat.
After the acquittal, a punk group, Rex Barker and the Ricochets, produced a 45 rpm record, Jeremy Is Innocent. It consisted of the refrain "Jeremy, Jeremy" punctuated by samples of gunfire and a barking dog.
Thorpe was put on trial at Number One Court at the Old Bailey on May 8th 1979. He was charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. One of the chief prosecution witnesses, a man who claimed an inside knowledge of the conspiracy, was former Liberal MP and failed businessman Peter Bessell. He claimed to have been involved in some discussions regarding the conspiracy within the Liberal Party. According to Bessell, who later sold his story to the press, poison had been rejected as a method of assassinating Scott because "it would raise too many questions if he fell dead off a barstool". One alleged plan had been to shoot Scott in Cornwall and dispose of the body down a disused tinmine.
Bessell agreed to appear as a witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. His testimony was somewhat undermined, however, when it was found that he had sold his story to The Sunday Telegraph for a fee which would double from £25,000 to £50,000 if the prosecution was successful. Thorpe did not testify in the case, but his legal team, led by George Carman QC, argued that although he and Scott had been friends, there had been no sexual element to their relationship. Carman claimed that Scott had nevertheless undertaken a campaign of blackmail against Thorpe, and that although Thorpe and his friends had discussed "frightening" Scott into silence, they had never conspired to kill him.
Summing up the case, Mr Justice Cantley was widely criticised for showing a nakedly pro-establishment bias, in which he described Scott as "a crook, an accomplished liar... a fraud". The summing up was at once mercilessly and famously satirised by Peter Cook during his performance at The Secret Policeman's Ball in a piece which has become known as Entirely a Matter for You In spite of the Judge's direction, the jury were at first split 6-6, but, after 15 hours of deliberation, they finally reached a verdict of Not Guilty. The four defendants were all acquitted on June 22, 1979.
Not long after the end of the trial, Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and retired from public life. For the past twenty years, his disease has been at an advanced stage. He did, however, manage to make an appearance at the funeral of Roy Jenkins in 2003.
In 1999, Thorpe published a set of memoirs entitled In My Own Time, in which he described key episodes in his political life. He did not, however, shed any further light on the "Rinkagate" affair. Thorpe has never made any public statements regarding his sexual orientation.
In 2002, questions were asked on the BBC programme Newsnight about Jack Straw's involvement in "Rinkagate", after a tape-recording surfaced of Harold Wilson discussing the scandal and saying: "Look, I saw Jack Straw, he's very worried if he were mentioned in this context, he thinks he'll be finished". According to the diary of Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Social Security, Wilson had asked her to examine Norman Scott's social security file to see if it contained any indications that he was working as part of a conspiracy against Thorpe. Straw informed Castle that when he went to examine Scott's file, he found it was missing. The journalist Barrie Penrose has alleged that Straw subsequently leaked information from the file to the media. Straw remains silent on that matter but has denied accusations from Joe Haines, that Wilson asked him to read the files in order to gather information that could be used to smear Thorpe. At the time, the general view, promoted in particular by Private Eye, was that Wilson was using his position and influence to help and protect Thorpe and certainly not to smear him. In a BBC2 documentary on 16 March 2006, Penrose revealed that he pursued or stumbled on the murder allegations in the course of following leads from Harold Wilson, who wanted to prompt an investigation into the role of security services in destabilizing his government. The documentary suggested that Wilson's original perception and intention were to help rather than undermine Thorpe, believing that he was also an intended victim of a right-wing plot by a rogue element in MI5.
Since the early 1990s, Thorpe and his closest friends have also collaborated with historian Michael Bloch on an authorised biography, and have reputedly been more candid than before on the events surrounding the Scott allegations, on the understanding that nothing would be published until after Thorpe's death. Between 2001 and 2004 there was a lengthy legal battle as Bloch reneged on his promise and repeatedly attempted to go ahead with publication in Thorpe's lifetime. On each occasion, court orders have successfully halted publication.
A full account of the trial of Jeremy Thorpe can be found in No Ordinary Man by Dominic Carman, published in 2002 by Hodder & Stoughton.