My column for ConHome: The Rennard affair shows Lib Dem strengths as well as weaknesses

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I was told I couldn’t shirk the responsibility of explaining the Rennard affair – so if you’ve had your fill of it, stop reading now. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Phew. I’m smiling as I write this. Why? Because, by my reckoning, it’s fully five days since there was last a Lib Dem sex scandal on a newspaper front page.

Of course, it’s always possible that between Monday (my copy deadline) and Tuesday (publication day) something will happen. Perhaps the truth about the simmering ‘bromance’ between Nick Clegg and Peter Bone will finally come out (if you ask me, they’re trying a bit too hard to act like they’re not in love). But maybe, just maybe, my party will get a few days’ respite from either being ripped to shreds by the media or (doing their job for them) tearing ourselves apart in public.

It’s been a bloody fortnight. Lord Rennard isn’t a household name to most, but to Lib Dems he is – or used to be – regarded as Peter Mandelson, Lynton Crosby, Philip Gould and Lord Ashcroft all rolled into one.

It’s easy to explain why. In the summer of 1990, the Lib Dems were struggling for survival, polling at 4-8%. (However grim things may seem today, they have nothing on how dire the party’s (mis)fortunes actually were then). Then a by-election arose, in tragic circumstances, when Ian Gow, Conservative MP Eastbourne for Eastbourne, was killed by the IRA. Paddy Ashdown thought the Lib Dems should, out of statesmanlike solidarity, sit it out. His 30 year-old director of campaigns disagreed, strongly: “I am appalled that you were thinking of issuing a statement without consulting the person responsible for organizing the party’s by-election campaigns, i.e. me”. The Lib Dems won on a swing of 20%, a Tory defeat which presaged Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. That Ashdown is the single most important figure in the party’s modern history is largely thanks to Rennard.

Almost one-quarter of a century later, the man who built up the Lib Dems is, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, threatening to tear it down (or, at any rate, his allies are), according to The Sunday Times: ‘The Liberal Democrat peer at the centre of a sexual harassment scandal could expose two decades of sex scandals in the party if Nick Clegg “goes nuclear” and tries to expel him, say his friends.’ Look on his works, ye Mighty, and despair!, they didn’t add.

What could Nick Clegg have done to prevent all this? If we could rewind the clock to 2008, the answer would be simple. When allegations first surfaced against Lord Rennard, who was then still chief executive, the party should have taken them far more seriously and launched a proper investigation. But Clegg, less than 18 months into the job, pre-occupied with many other worrisome priorities, and eager to avoid a messy confrontation with Rennard, tried to keep a safe distance. For a while it worked. None of the women making the allegations went public, while Rennard himself – whose position had been weakened by allegations about his expenses as a peer – was eased out of his role in 2009. As Clegg put it a year ago on LBC: “I felt it was time for a change at the top of the professional party. His health was poor and that was the immediate reason he left but of course these things were in the background.”

Ironically, though, the moment Chris Rennard ceased to be party chief executive and became just another party member was when the allegations became far more problematic for Nick Clegg. As an employee, the allegations of sexual impropriety would have needed to pass only the civil court test of being credible on the balance of probabilities. As a party member, they had to meet the criminal court threshold and be proven beyond reasonable doubt before any disciplinary action could be taken. With Chris Rennard disputing the claims on the one side, and the women standing firm by their evidence on the other, Clegg has ended up as the rope in a bruising tug-of-war, pulled in both directions.

To commentators and (I suspect) the public, Nick Clegg appears weak, a ditherer. “Why not take immediate action?” they demand. Strip Lord Rennard of the Lib Dem whip and suspend his party membership, goes up the cry. As yet, though, Rennard has not been charged with any offence, nor found guilty of one. And Clegg is right when he points out, “I am leader of a political party, not a sect.” The Lib Dem parliamentary party in the Lords holds the ultimate sanction of banishing one of their number, and they don’t take kindly to upstart leaders trampling on their rights. As for suspending party membership, well, there are good reasons to be suspicious of political leaders looking to grab that particular power for themselves. As former Lib Dem MP David Howarth acerbically notes: “Those of us who spent a lifetime in politics not doing what party leaders wanted us to do should be asking ourselves what this means. Are we in a political party any more, or are we in a fan club?”

It would all be much easier if Nick Clegg were leader of the Conservatives. (Go on: hold that picture, I dare you.) In 2005, Michael Howard sacked Howard Flight – not just as the party’s deputy chairman but also as an MP – for suggesting that, if elected, the party would aim for bigger tax cuts than they were promising. In doing so, the Conservative leader went over the heads of Flight’s own constituency party, threatening Arundel and South Downs Conservative association with suspension if they stood by their man. You want the smack of firm leadership? That’s where it leads.

Besides, the Lib Dems’ internal democracy may make the party leader look weak now, but in the event of a second hung parliament it will be Nick Clegg who’s the stronger for it. He will be able to look either David Cameron or Ed Miliband squarely in the face – if the Tory leader wants to scrap the Human Rights Act or if the Labour leader wants to re-introduce ID Cards – and say to them during coalition negotiations, “Up with this my members will not put.” Leaders should lead, yes. But they can only do so effectively if we’ve got their back.