Chris Rennard allegations: where we’re at

by Stephen Tall on February 24, 2013

Today’s press makes grim reading for the Lib Dems. Three of the Sunday papers lead on the allegations that Lord (Chris) Rennard behaved sexually inappropriately during his time as chief executive, and — more worrying still — that the party covered it up.

On Friday I published an opinion piece Chris Rennard allegations – the party needs to do better than this, arguing the party needed to set up a confidential whistle-blower’s email address to which further complaints could be sent, and that the review of the allegations needed to be independent of the party.

Over the weekend senior party figures have moved some of the way towards that. Tim Gordon, the party’s current chief executive (Chris Rennard’s successor-but-one) wrote here yesterday that:

… currently [we are] looking at ways to strengthen the independence of this review – we will add non-party members to the group and will seek professional advice from external sources. … The Party’s whistle blowing representative, Kate Parminter, has agreed to be a single point of contact for all those wishing to contribute to either review. Kate can be contacted at whistleblower@libdems.org.uk. She is the only person with access to this email and all complaints will be dealt with on a strictly confidential basis.

I stand by my view that it is unfair to expect Tim Farron as party president to be tasked with asking the kinds of tough questions that will need to be asked of his parliamentary colleagues and others he has known for years. Moreover, an external review is the only kind that is likely to carry credibility with the press and public.

As for today’s newspapers, the front page which shouts loudest is the Mail’s: Bombshell email: Clegg knew about sex scandal. The paper’s clear implication is that this is a ‘smoking gun’ email from or to Nick Clegg which shows his direct knowledge of the allegations.

It turns out to be a Facebook exchange between one of the three women in the original Channel 4 News report (one who preferred to remain anonymous, described as “well connected at Lib Dem HQ”), who believes Nick will have known about them. The party’s review will have to find out whether her belief was accurate. But Nick Clegg’s office has been emphatic, with a spokesman saying again today that Nick “categorically did not know” about the claims, which Chris Rennard denies.

Alison Smith, who went public with her allegations against Chris Rennard last week, has been highlighting on Twitter her reasons for doing so now. This follows some speculation among party members that the timing of the story — one week before the Eastleigh by-election — might have been politically motivated:

Interestingly, Alison also re-tweeted the following point from MattB_UK last night:

alison smith retweet

Where does all this leave us: well, in a mess, that’s for sure. These allegations are serious ones. They must be investigated as thoroughly as possible. I am sure Tim Farron and the review team — which Tim Gordon promised would include “at least three women, representing a cross section of the party [and] will specifically include people with strong legal and HR backgrounds and people independent of the individuals involved” — will do their best. For their own sake, as much as for the party’s, I still hope they opt for an independent review.

In the meantime we can expect the press and the party’s opponents to make political capital out of this story. Such is politics — and it won’t do any of us any harm if we feel that’s unfair to think how often the shoe has been on the other foot.

But the over-riding concern here must be to ensure justice is done and seen to be done. Justice for the women bringing forward these allegations, as well as justice for those against who their complaints are levelled: notably Chris Rennard, but also named individuals within the party who are said not to have done enough to make the party’s internal processes work.

A word about comments: I know some people feel that LibDemVoice’s decision to switch off comments relating to earlier reports of this story was excessive, even illiberal. I understand the concerns. However, we took the view — and I believe it was the right one — that given these claims are serious but contested, and given that LibDemVoice and its editorial team would be liable for any actionable comments posted which we failed to moderate, it was our only option. Comments on this post are switched on but will be closely monitored. I would ask all those who want to comment to please exercise care in what you say about the allegations and especially about any named individuals.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.