Papering over the crack of the elephant in the room

by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2009

Yesterday was a sad day for the Lib Dems. First, because we lost as chief executive a proven successful campaigner, Lord (Chris) Rennard, who helped save the post-merger Lib Dems from near extinction. And, secondly, because the way in which he was forced to announce his resignation resolved nothing, and was entirely lacking in dignity.

It has been clear to everyone since the News of the World alleged that Chris had claimed £41k in Lords’ allowances after designating his Eastbourne flat as his main residence (rather than his London house) that Chris and the party would need to make a statement – a statement from Chris which clarified his living arrangements, and a statement from the party which explained how it would deal with the claims that Chris had abused the system.

Yesterday Chris and the party decided to issue statements which dealt with neither of those issues. That was a mistake. It was a mistake by Chris. It was a mistake by Nick Clegg, as leader. And it was a mistake by Ros Scott, as Party President and chair of the Federal Executive.

We have perhaps been fortunate that the claims against Chris have been overshadowed by the serious allegations in the Telegraph over MPs’ expenses. Even the media response to his resignation as chief executive has been relatively low-key. But that is not the point.

The point is this: an allegation of impropriety has been made against a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords who is also the party’s chief executive. The party could and should have dealt with this issue more quickly and with greater resolve. It has done no-one any good to have the allegations hanging like a dark cloud over Chris and the party for the past fortnight with no statement from the top. Imagine if this had been an allegation against a Labour or Tory peer in an equivalent position, and imagine what our party press releases would have said about the situation.

Of course these things are never easy. Allegations involving friends and colleagues never are. But if we cannot get right the processes for dealing with our internal difficulties, how can we convince anyone else (or ourselves) that we would be any different and better at reforming the wider political system?

The shame is this: Chris has been a great servant to this party, and he deserved a far more dignified exit than this. I have no reason to doubt for a moment the sincerity of his statement that he is standing down for personal and health reasons. But to claim the timing of his announcement is nothing to do with the allegations against him is to treat the party membership as fools. Assuming the decision was made of Chris’s own volition, it is another example of him putting the party’s interests ahead of his own.

But Chris remains a Lib Dem Parliamentarian, and his resignation does nothing at all to alter the fact that his statement and the party’s should have recognised the seriousness of the allegations, and spelled out the process by which they would be investigated. This has sort of happened with today’s announcement that the Lib Dem leader and chief whip in the House of Lords will undertake a thorough review of our peers’ expenses and allowances. But as ‘Tabman’ pointed out in an LDV comments thread today, why on earth did the party yesterday not issue something like the following statement:

Regarding the specific allegations concerning Lord Rennard, there will be a through review of expenses and allowances in the House of Lords which will draw on the work to be undertaken by the independent external assessor. If after this review has reported back [timescale] Lord Rennard has found to have acted improperly, then he will have to pay the money back / face disciplinary action etc [delete as applicable].”

In the circumstances he faced, Chris’s exit as chief executive was never going to be the happy departure he must have once hoped for. But the one thing he, Nick and Ros should have ensured was closure on the specific allegations. Publicly ignoring them was the very worst choice they could have made.

As a result the majority of yesterday’s comments on LDV did not acknowledge the super-human contribution Chris has made to the Lib Dems, keeping us going in the dark days, through to today’s position of strength. A sad end, badly done.