Lord Rennard: is it all a plot to undermine Clegg's leadership?
Or is Clegg doing all the damage himself, changing his story about the Rennard rumours yet again?
NICK CLEGG'S position as Lib Dem leader was in peril today after he changed his tune yet again regarding the allegations against Lord Rennard, telling BBC Radio Solent this morning: "The problem is that until last week no very [the Mole's italics] specific allegations were put to me."
As the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said afterwards, by adding the word "very" Clegg had altered his story overnight.
Returning from holiday in Spain yesterday, Clegg issued a statement saying he had been made aware in 2008 of "indirect and non-specific concerns" – gossip, in other words – about possibly inappropriate behaviour towards female party officials by Lord Rennard.
Clegg said his office had the allegations checked out and because Rennard "categorically denied” them the matter was dropped.
The deputy PM denies a cover-up to save the reputation of the party's chief executive, the man credited with transforming the party's fortunes in a series of election victories over 20 years.
According to BBC political correspondent Ian Watson, Clegg's camp now believe the drama that began with a Channel 4 News segment last week is a plot to undermine his leadership. (Rennard, it should be remembered, vehemently denies the charges and says he never received a complaint and that some of the complainers had continued with him after their alleged encounters.)
Some might argue that Clegg is undermining his leadership himself by dealing with the matter inadequately. He allowed his office to say last week that he had no knowledge of the allegations against Rennard until they were aired on C4, before changing his story yesterday and then again this morning.
The Daily Mail accused him of "weasel words" after yesterday's statement. He appeared to be on the run this morning, preferring to go on Radio Solent than the flagship Radio 4 Today programme where Lib Dem president Tim Farron was forced to admit: "We screwed this up."
The press is not going to let up. They want to know exactly how much Clegg knew and when did he knew it – and they want the facts about the circumstances of Lord Rennard’s resignation from his job as chief executive in 2009 on ill-health grounds. Did he go because "the rumours" were making his tenure impossible? And if those rumours had anything to do with his going, why has he since been allowed back onto the Lib Dems' federal policy committee?
Is Clegg the victim of a plot? And, if so, is it his own party or the Tories who are out to get him?
A Lib Dem plot would hardly be surprising. Many loath the compromises he has made to keep his coalition with the Conservatives and want him replaced before the general election by Vincent Cable. A defeat in the Eastleigh by-election on Thursday could bring more calls for his head.
A Tory plot would have to come from that wing of the party that believes a new Conservative offering – tough on scroungers, tough on immigrants - can win the Tories an outright majority in the 2015 general election, especially if the Lib Dems are given a good pasting between now and then. ·