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Jeremy Thorpe: A career dedicated to the greater glory of himself (Tony Freeman/Keystone/Getty Images)

There is a photograph, in this absorbing biography of the late and not quite great Liberal Party leader, of him fastidiously attending to the tie on his newly unveiled likeness in Madam Tussaud's. Thorpe's relative dandyism in the grey days of the 1970s—all trilbies, velvet collars and waistcoats—even then appeared slightly anachronistic, but the picture also shows how much politics and our attitude to politicians have changed. When Thorpe was in his heyday, it was obviously thought quite fitting that a political leader not in government would be important enough to merit such a wax makeover and, in a country with only three TV channels, famous enough to be popularly recognised. Politics, with its hold on our collective attention, was the only show in town.

Those days are long gone, but it was in any case rather a tatty, dreary show. That Michael Bloch manages to inject life into it, indeed make the manoeuvrings of post-war Westminster politics into an almost page-turning narrative, is not just down to his deft handling of what is obviously a mass of research, but surely derives too from his origins outside the Westminster bubble (he has previously written extensively about the Windsors). In feel and style, the book most resembles Charles Moore's opus on Thatcher, quite an achievement when one considers the relative historical importance of the subjects. But unlike Moore's book, one finds oneself picturing the personalities and events solidly in black and white, as though they are not quite part of the modern age.
Despite Bloch's skill, readers under 40 will still have to take on trust much of the description of Thorpe's qualities. The author describes the charisma, wit and talent for mimicry which apparently dazzled audiences from Eton onwards, but other than his famous line about Harold Macmillan ("No greater love hath a man than that he lay down his friends for his life"), few people seem to have thought them worthy of recording. He was, in short, a showman, and apparently effective enough to take millions of voters along with him.

What does come through loud and clear however is Thorpe's intellectual superficiality, vanity and seat-of-the-pants approach to many of the issues on which he was called to have an opinion. Certainly his anti-apartheid stance seemed genuine and passionate, as was his belief in Britain's need to be in Europe. But at no point does one feel that this man was anything other than somebody playing the political game to the greater glory of Jeremy Thorpe. There was no bigger picture. At one point in 1974, when he held talks with the beleaguered Prime Minister Edward Heath, it certainly looked as if he might wield some power from within government. But it came to nothing and now, like the rest of his political career, it all looks very beside the point.

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