Rennard suspended: Lib Dems face High Court battle

Rennard calls for his accusers to back down and tells how he has considered 'self harm'

Column LAST UPDATED AT 15:18 ON Mon 20 Jan 2014

LIB DEM leader Nick Clegg is facing the threat of a bloody High Court battle after his party officially suspended the membership of Lord Rennard today over allegations that the Lib Dem peer has potentially brought the party into disrepute.

At the same time, Rennard issued a lengthy statement in which he demanded that his accusers back down and talked about a "smear campaign" against him dating back several years.

"During the 2010 general election," he states, "I was again subjected to more personal allegations. The depth of depression that I felt and the consideration of self harm is difficult to describe so I will not do so."

An independent review by Alistair Webster QC last week concluded there was less than a 50 per cent chance of a criminal case of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard being proved beyond a reasonable doubt but there was "broadly credible" evidence of behaviour which "violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants". Webster recommended that Rennard should apologise.

However, Rennard refused to do and, as The Mole reported earlier today, was threatening to turn up at the House of Lords this afternoon to reclaim his seat on the Lib Dem benches – despite calls from Nick Clegg that he must apologise to the women concerned, even if he never intended to offend them.

At the eleventh hour, a committee of party chairmen issued their edict – that Rennard's party membership was suspended pending a new investigation into whether, by refusing to apologise, he was bringing the party into disrepute. 

This effectively took the issue out of the hands of Lib Dem peers in the House of Lords, where Rennard – the party’s former election strategist, who many fellow peers owe their careers to – had strong support. 

At the same time, Rennard issued his own statement expressing his hurt at the way he's been treated. In it he said he "regrets" any hurt, embarrassment or upset he may have caused - but he still refused to apologise to the four women complainants. "I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean." Also, apologising would leave him "defenceless in a future civil action", he said.  

Even before that statement was issued, his legal adviser, fellow Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, had threatened to launch a court appeal if Rennard was suspended by the party. Given Rennard's obvious fury, that is now a real prospect.

Lord Greaves, a Lib Dem peer and former activist, said it would be a “disaster” to have the row dragged through the courts. He said on the BBC Daily Politics show that Clegg had turned a storm in a teacup into a crisis for the Lib Dems.

It all leaves Clegg with his leadership on the line and a serious mess on his hands. Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader, a women’s rights campaigner, accused Clegg of making “a pig’s ear” of the women's allegations of sexual harassment, which became public knowledge last February when Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News aired their claims. 

As James Landale, the BBC's deputy political editor, said today, the launch of a new investigation is a “high risk” strategy for the party. "This statement does not end this affair - it just means it moves to another stage." ·