29 May 2014

A dilemma for Nick Clegg as Lord Rennard apologises

More than a year ago we broadcast allegations that the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard had abused his power by behaving inappropriately to a series of women. He’s always categorically denied the claims and has since defied his leader’s demands for an apology.

Tonight, I can reveal Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive, has finally issued a written apology to four of the women who made the allegations.

Read the Lord Rennard Letter in full

In it, he accepts he “may well have encroached upon personal space”. He adds that he’d like to “apologise sincerely for any such intrusion” which would, he says, “have been inadvertent”.  And he expresses “regret for any harm or embarrassment caused”.

Alison Goldsworthy – a senior party official who alleged last year Lord Rennard had put his hand down the back of her dress – told me she was grateful he’d at last recognised how upsetting his behaviour was.

“I am relieved that some acceptance has now started to come forward from Chris Rennard that what he did was not OK, but very frustrated that I have had to spend the last 15 months talking about things that are really very private”, Ms Goldsworthy, the deputy chairman of the party’s powerful federal executive committee, said.

In the 15 months since we broadcast our allegations the party leadership has repeatedly demanded that Lord Rennard apologise to the four women we interviewed. He’s always refused.

His friend and lawyer Lord Carlile has always insisted “there’s no reason why he should because he has denied these allegations”.

Earlier this year Nick Clegg responded to Lord Rennard’s defiance by suspending him from the party and launching a disciplinary inquiry into whether the peer had brought the Lib Dems into disrepute – grounds for his dismissal.

So now the peer has said sorry, should he be welcomed back into the party he describes as his surrogate family?

Ms Goldsworthy says Lord Rennard’s admission he behaved inappropriately means Nick Clegg should kicked him out of the party: “The right thing is to look at the body of evidence that has come before them which is currently being considered, to look at the fact that Chris Rennard has now accepted that his behaviour was untoward –  which he has spent the last 15 months denying and trying to discredit anybody who spoke out – and to say, ‘No, that is not acceptable and you should be kicked out’.”

Ms Goldsworthy insisted: “There is no reason for him to be cowed by Lord Rennard.”

The question is whether Mr Clegg is strong enough to act.

He’s been weakened by the Lib Dems’ dismal performance at the European elections, and an abortive coup by a peer – and friend of Lord Rennard – Lord Oakeshott.

Lord Rennard’s spokesman told Channel 4 News that the apology speaks for itself, saying that Lord Rennard would have offered the apology much sooner if he had been given sight of the Webster report [into the allegations of inappropriate behaviour and how the party handled them] when it was completed.

The Liberal Democrats declined to comment as the appeals process in relation to both the Webster report and the party’s disciplinary hearing into Lord Rennard are still ongoing.

An embattled Mr Clegg now faces an impossible dilemma.

If he moves against Lord Rennard the peer has previously suggested he’ll take legal action. But if he fails to act, the women believe their leader will have shown himself to be too weak to take on a man who now admits he may have caused them harm.

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