Clegg leadership on the line as Rennard saga splits Lib Dems
Women threaten to resign, there’s talk of a plot against Rennard, Clegg sounds like he's pleading with the peer
EDITOR'S UPDATE at 2.30 pm: The Liberal Democrats have suspended Lord Rennard's party membership until a new investigation can ascertain whether he has brought the party into disrepute. As a result, Lord Rennard did not come to the Lords today to reclaim his seat on the Lib Dem benches.
LIB DEM leader Nick Clegg gave a final ultimatum on Radio 4’s Today programme to Lord Rennard in the stand-off over allegations that he distressed Lib Dem women staff with sexual harassment: If you don’t apologise, you can’t rejoin the party.
In Clegg’s view, Lord Rennard, the party’s election strategist, has six hours to end the stand-off and apologise before rejoining the Lib Dem benches in the House of Lords.
The problem is, Clegg has no direct authority to force the Lib Dem peers to remove the whip today – and most of those peers want Rennard back. If he continues to refuse to apologise, it is Clegg’s authority as the party leader that could be shot full of holes.
Clegg tried to sound tough in this morning’s interview, saying: “Let’s see what happens. If he doesn’t apologise, he should not rejoin our party in the House of Lords. No apology – no whip.”
But Lord Rennard’s legal adviser, Lord Carlile QC, has made it clear Rennard continues to deny the allegations which centre on three senior Lib Dem women staff who say he placed his hands on their knees or thighs outside their clothing some years ago and a fourth woman who alleged he put his hand down the back of her dress during a group photograph.
Lib Dem QC Alistair Webster, who held an inquiry into the allegations, reported last week that there was insufficient evidence for a criminal case, but said there was evidence distress had been caused and urged Rennard to apologise to the women concerned. Rennard has resolutely refused to do so because he doesn’t want to admit something he says he hasn’t done and open himself up to civil lawsuits.
Lord Carlile is advising Lord Rennard to stand firm. Clegg, in a clear sideswipe at Carlile on the Today programme, said Rennard had been given “poor advice”. Clegg sounded like he was pleading with Rennard at one point in the interview, saying: “I sometimes think that people get too legalistic and suggest you only apologise when a court tells you to. People apologise every day for causing distress.”
The Lib Dem leader said that if Rennard would only follow Webster’s recommendation, it would be the end of the matter. “I think if he apologises and reflects and changes his behaviour so that the distress is not caused again then it is quite reasonable for him to say that he has done what he has been asked to do.”
But if Rennard sticks to his guns? As Sky News tweeted after the Lib Dem leader appeared on their morning news show, “Clegg refuses to clarify what he'll do if Lord Rennard doesn't apologise.
One of Clegg’s former aides who made a complaint of sexual harassment against Rennard has threatened to resign from the party this afternoon if the peer is allowed to return to the Lib Dem benches, following his suspension while the investigation took place.
A third of the Lib Dem policy committee on which Lord Rennard sits has also demanded that he should not be allowed to rejoin their committee.
Meanwhile The Guardian reports that Lord Rennard's supporters say there is a conspiracy to damage him. They have released an email inadvertently sent to them that shows the four women took up a suggestion to petition the Queen to have Rennard stripped of his peerage.
His supporters do not explain what possible motive the women could have for this conspiracy, but Lord Rennard is under pressure not to back down. Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP, said: “The whole thing has become like the Salem witch trials.”
Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, said on the Today programme many in the party regard Rennard as the secret of the Lib Dems' election success in the recent past. They credit him, not Clegg, with gaining enough seats to join a coalition government for the first time in decades. “They see him as the behind-the-scenes Mastermind who got them where they are.”
But while this stand-off continues, Clegg’s already damaged leadership is left virtually in limbo. The issue completely overshadowed the launch of a policy initiative on mental health, which was the intended purpose of Clegg’s appearance on Radio 4 this morning.
His best hope, according to Robinson, is that local party chairmen come to his rescue today by concluding Rennard is bringing the party into disrepute.
In an article for the Mail on Sunday, Lord Carlile compared Lord Rennard’s treatment to that of the victims of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Un, or the wives of Henry VIII at the hands of Thomas Cromwell. Clegg must be thinking: “If only.”