IT’S not entirely socially acceptable to express sympathy for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Please believe me, I’ve tried. Attacks on him as a sell-out, a Conservative lap-dog, even a traitor to his party’s traditions when he agreed, in 2010, to form a coalition government with the Tories seemed to me to be too simplistic, too knee-jerk.
What else, I wondered, was the man supposed to have done? A popular complaint may have been that the partnership between Clegg and David Cameron was not what the country voted for, but I argued then (and still do) that, in fact, it was at least a pretty good interpretation of what the electorate wanted.
So while many critics – largely sore-loser Labour Party supporters and members of the dreaded commentariat – derided Clegg as an opportunist, it seemed worthwhile making the case that his decision was pragmatic, mature, and sensible. Economic circumstances dictated that minority government – with the potential for instability that creates – was unwise. Surely by striking a deal with Cameron, Clegg was putting country before party.
History, I believed, would be kinder to the leader of the Lib Dems than contemporary criticism suggested it might. What chance now that Clegg’s career will be remembered for making the Lib Dems a truly credible force in our democracy?
Polls before the 2010 general election suggested voters saw Clegg as representative of a different kind of politics (a more “honest”, consensual, and – of course – unworkable kind of politics). He was comfortably judged the winner of debates with Cameron and Gordon Brown.
But today Clegg – and his party – demand our contempt rather than invite our indulgence. The Deputy Prime Minister’s almost incomprehensibly weaselly handling of allegations of sexual impropriety by key party figures suggests his Mr New Politics act was sheer cynicism. While Clegg was talking about Lib Dem values and how important they were to containing the cruellest excesses of the Tory right, he was pointedly ignoring allegations of appalling abuse of power by men over women in his party. He kept smiling (and apologising for things) and, we can safely assume, hoped these festering scandals might conveniently fade away.
They have not done so. On Thursday, the Liberal Democrats suspended MP Mike Hancock, more than three years after a female constituent first complained of inappropriate conduct.
They acted after an independent report by Nigel Pascoe QC, who found prima facie evidence that the 67-year-old MP was guilty of “serious and unwelcome sexual behaviour”.
Any naive notion that the party has acted with honour evaporates when we consider that Pascoe’s findings were delivered to the Lib Dems in August of last year. Action against Hancock was triggered by the damaging leak of Pascoe’s document, not by its content.
The report was commissioned by Lib Dem-run Portsmouth City Council and Clegg’s office insists that the leader knew nothing of its existence until it leaked this week.
We must accept this assurance at face value but we are entitled to be surprised that the leader of the Lib Dems had taken no interest in the Hancock case, which involved quite serious allegations made by a vulnerable constituent with mental health problems, and which are currently the subject of an ongoing civil case.
Clegg’s action – or reaction – over Hancock doesn’t look good on him. We’re left with only two scenarios: he did know something of the report and didn’t want to recognise its findings, or he genuinely knew nothing. In which case, what kind of leader does that make him?
There are similarly uncomfortable questions for Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael, who was the Lib Dems’ chief whip from 2010-13. Didn’t his role as sergeant major to the parliamentary group demand a detailed interest in the Hancock allegations?
The Hancock mess tops up a swamp already deep with allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Chris Rennard, suspended by the party earlier in the week for allegedly bringing the Lib Dems into disrepute by refusing to apologise to female activists who’d complained about him making unwanted advances.
The Lib Dems had carried out their own report into Rennard which, unsurprisingly, had stopped short of recommending any disciplinary action against this friend of Nick Clegg’s whose fundraising has kept the party afloat.
The frankly weird solution – saying “sorry and let’s move on” to women making grave allegations – smacked of a party stitch-up. You can almost hear the thought process: we want to be seen to do something but we don’t want to kill the golden goose. What would be a potentially bearable degree of humiliation for funny old Chris?
Clegg’s investigation into whether Rennard has brought the party into disrepute by failing to apologise looks an act of panic after the peer’s alleged victims spoke out. One wonders what there is to investigate. Rennard has refused to apologise. Surely it’s simply a matter for the party’s lawyer to advise whether this constitutes some breach of the rules.
Clegg’s “investigation” is more spin. Look! I am tough and I do the decent thing. Vote Lib Dem.
He may have chosen, finally, to address matters concerning both Hancock and Rennard but the chance of Clegg doing so cleanly and efficiently is poor. Rennard has instructed a senior QC and threatened to apply for an injunction if Clegg refuses to halt the party’s investigation into not-saying-sorrygate. Friends of the peer – and he has many – have warned that Clegg will face a courtroom “bloodbath” unless he calls off the dogs.
We’re told the Lib Dem leader is prepared to call his old pal’s bluff. Clegg’s playing confident in the face of threats from Rennard’s allies that court action would tear the party apart.
So what? Who would mourn the Liberal Democrats? Nick Clegg styled himself as a politician of openness and decency while sitting on the lid of a cesspit. But now the lid’s come off and Clegg’s up to his neck. If he drowns in there, he’ll have only himself to blame.