CIVIL war broke out in the Liberal Democrats last night as its former chief executive Lord Rennard threatened legal action over a decision to suspend him from the party.
In what is turning into a crisis for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s leadership, the peer at the centre of sexual harassment allegations has threatened legal action against the party after being suspended pending new disciplinary proceedings.
He had intended to take his seat in the Lords yesterday, after an internal party investigation found there was insufficient evidence to back up the claims.
But three minutes before the Lords started their sitting at 2:30pm, it was announced the Lib Dem regional parties committee had suspended Lord Rennard’s membership over his refusal to apologise for the hurt and distress he had caused.
It meant he could not take his place on the government benches with other Lib Dem peers as had been agreed with the party’s chief whip in the Lords, Lord Newby, last week.
In a statement last night, Lord Rennard, who has many supporters in the House of Lords, voiced his fury and warned the affair could end in the courts. The statement read: “In the light of the extraordinary decision by the English regional parties committee, Lord Rennard is having to take legal advice with a view to civil action against the party.”
In an earlier 2,600 word statement, the peer voiced his “regret” if the women had been hurt, embarrassed or upset by anything he did, but said he would not apologise for something he had not done, as it could leave him “defenceless” in any future civil action.
Lord Rennard said he was “enormously distressed” by the escalating row and was too unwell to attend parliament.
He had voluntarily withdrawn from the Lib Dem benches while barrister Alistair Webster conducted an inquiry into the claims, but said Lord Newby had confirmed he was being readmitted following its conclusion last Wednesday.
Mr Clegg set up a potential clash with his own peers – many of whom are known to sympathise with Lord Rennard – in a round of interviews yesterday morning, in which he said he should not return to the Upper House until he said sorry, saying bluntly: “No apology, no whip.”
Chris Davies MEP claimed on Sunday that the row had been blown out of proportion, adding: “This isn’t Jimmy Savile, it is [allegedly] touching someone’s leg six years ago, at a meeting, through clothing.”
Lib Dem peer Lord Greaves said: “I am one of those horrified at what seems to be the lack of acceptance of the due process which has taken place” – suggesting any apology by Lord Rennard was unlikely to be accepted in the present climate.
But Mr Clegg said Lord Rennard should apologise as a matter of “basic decency”, and said readmitting him to the parliamentary party without such an apology would be “in defiance” of his authority.
However, he acknowledged he did not have the power to block Lord Rennard’s return, thanks to party rules that leave the final decision on the withdrawal of the whip to a vote of the 99 Liberal Democrat peers.
The suspension was welcomed by Bridget Harris, one of the women who alleged she was harassed. “I think Nick felt deeply responsible that all of this happened and technically, on paper, it felt like there was very little the leadership could do,” said Ms Harris, a former aide to the Lib Dem leader.
“But, actually, as it has turned out today, there is something we can do. We can send a strong message that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated.”
Lord Rennard said the party leadership had been “unwise” to demand an apology from him, and urged them to “let the
In a statement of more than 2,600 words, the peer – who has worked for the party for 27 years and has been a member for 40 years – said: “Courtesy has always been an essential part of my moral compass.
“If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset. But for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.”
Lord Rennard said he was told by Mr Webster last Wednesday that he had concluded there should be no further action against him. But he said the party had acted contrary to its own rules by refusing to give him a copy of the report.
“I have not spoken to, met with, or heard from Nick Clegg in 11 months,” said Lord Rennard. “I would ask him, now that he has more knowledge of the facts, to ask for any threat to me to be withdrawn and to insist that I see the report, to which I am entitled, and to let me help him and my party again.”
Lord Rennard said the strain of being chief executive, as well as a parliamentary investigation which cleared him of abusing expenses in 2009, had caused him “severe stress, anxiety and depression” and damaged his health. On learning of the allegations of improper behaviour towards women, he said that “the depth of depression I felt and the consideration of self-harm is difficult to describe”.
Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron acknowledged that the allegations “were not dealt with properly” when they emerged in 2010. But he said it was “only right and proper” that Lord Rennard now apologise, saying his concern about exposing himself to a possible civil action was “a red herring”.
Christine Jardine: ‘Would it not have been much better to investigate some sort of conciliatory approach?’
This is an issue that I was determined not it be drawn into. I was not involved in the inquiry and, having no first-hand knowledge of the circumstances or claims, was content to leave it to those who were tasked with investigating them to recommend the way forward.
And I certainly had no wish to comment on any of it.
But as the weekend dragged on and the hyperbole grew around the stand-off over whether Lord Rennard should return to the Upper House so did my frustration. Those of us on the sidelines can only imagine the distress suffered by everyone involved in this controversy over the past year or so.
I for one had hoped, perhaps naively, that the recommendations by Alistair Webster QC might offer a way for those at the centre of the storm to move on and put it behind them. It quickly became clear that was not to be the case.
What followed leaves me with an overwhelming sense of disappointment – but to be clear, not disappointment with the party or the actions of Nick Clegg.
He and the many others who called for an apology were simply acting on the clear recommendation of the QC.
They were also clear that, in the light of that recommendation, it would be inappropriate for Lord Rennard to resume the whip until he apologised.
Surely it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that those surrounding and advising Chris Rennard could find a way for this to happen?
Was simply refusing not making the suspension and disciplinary process that followed inevitable?
Would it not have been much better for everyone concerned to investigate the possibility of some sort of conciliatory approach?
Instead, there seemed to be almost a determination to ensure a confrontation over a possible return to the Lords rather than seek a way to resolve the situation.
I understand that many of my colleagues in the party may find themselves conflicted that a man who was responsible for so much electoral success, and served the party for so many years, is now at the centre of such a row. I have also read Lord Rennard’s statement and can sympathise with his distress.
But I also sympathise with the women who took the difficult of step of coming forward, knowing the turmoil they would face.
Now Lord Rennard faces another inquiry. There can be no winners in this situation but perhaps some conciliatory steps could have avoided such huge potential losses.
• Christine Jardine is a Liberal Democrat list candidate in the European elections and a former special adviser.