Rennard’s suspension lifted today – but the Lib Dems lost control of this situation years ago

by Stephen Tall on August 19, 2014

Tonight’s news that Lib Dem peer and former chief executive Chris Rennard has had his membership un-suspended is unsurprising.

The plain fact is the grounds on which the party had withdrawn his membership – that by declining to apologise to a number of women who have made allegations against him of sexual impropriety when requested brought the party into disrepute – simply wasn’t tenable. (Former Lib Dem MP and lawyer David Howarth explained why here.)

His un-suspension solves nothing, though. The inquiry into Lord Rennard’s conduct by Alistair Webster QC found “the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible”. But it failed to pass the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ threshold the party (ludicrously) sets for investigations under its own rules. As a result, there was no possible due process under which Lord Rennard’s party membership could be revoked.

In reality the party lost control of the Rennard situation many years ago – the moment it decided not to act on the allegations when he was chief executive. As I wrote here in January:

Most of the complaints that have been made public were first raised privately while Lord Rennard was an employee of the Lib Dems. The key failing of the party’s processes is not, in fact, what is happening now: it is what didn’t happen then. Too many people at the top of the party simply wanted a difficult problem to go away, and some at least of the women who made the complaints were understandably very reluctant to push their complaints in order to spare the party embarrassment. As a result, the outcome was fudged. Lord Rennard resigned as the party’s chief executive in 2009 on grounds of ill health without the allegations being resolved. From that point on, the only disciplinary action he could face was as a member (beyond reasonable doubt proof required) not as an employee (balance of probabilities suffices). And, of course, the more time that lapses, the harder it gets to substantiate allegations to that higher threshold. 

Today was the inevitable and uncomfortable conclusion of the party’s failure to act properly at the time.