20 Jan 2014

How my Rennard question to Nick Clegg got me booed

For almost a year, since breaking the story about allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” by Lord Rennard, I’ve asked repeatedly for an interview with the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to talk about the scandal. I’ve been denied such an interview at least as often as Lord Rennard has refused his party leader the apology he seeks.

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From the very start, this was a story not just about the allegations themselves, but about claims senior Lib Dem figures knew about Lord Rennard’s alleged behaviour and had failed to take decisive action after the women reported their concerns. So for months and months, there have been many questions to ask Mr Clegg and his senior team.

Just to recap, one of the women behind the original allegations, Alison Smith, says she complained to the then chief whip Paul Burstow in 2007, and the party president subsequently. Bridget Harris, until relatively recently the deputy prime minister’s own special adviser, complained to her line manager in 2003 – more than a decade ago. The women say, however, that they became embroiled in a “Kafka-esque” situation, and were repeatedly told by the party that nothing could be done because no one would make a complaint.

Last February, Nick Clegg spent days denying he was aware of allegations against Lord Rennard until Channel 4 News broadcast them. He then admitted that he was aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns” about the peer.

More from Channel 4 News on Lord Rennard

So the suggestion is that the Lib Dem leadership had every opportunity to deal with Lord Rennard years ago, but failed to take that opportunity. Hence my demands for an interview to ask Mr Clegg about his and his colleagues’ failings.

If there were questions 11 months ago, though, there are many more today.

Mr Clegg’s handling of the inquiry by Alistair Webster QC into Lord Rennard’s conduct and the subsequent fall-out has raised serious questions about his leadership. In fact, I think it’s no exaggeration to say this is the biggest crisis of his political life.

Why, when he ensured the Lib Dem peer Baroness Tonge left the party because of offensive comments over Israel, did he allow his chief whip in the Lords, Dick Newby, to shake hands on a deal to return the party whip to Lord Rennard today?

Why, when Mr Webster was given the remit for his inquiry, did the leadership allow the defining issue to focus on whether the peer had “intended” to behave inappropriately – something that’s clearly impossible to prove to any standard – criminal or civil – without venturing inside Lord Rennard’s head?

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Why hasn’t Mr Clegg talked to Lord Rennard for almost a year, leaving the peer quietly to go about gathering support in the Lords so that now the Lib Dem leader is engaged in a stand-off with some of his most senior colleagues?

And most pressingly of all, how on earth has Mr Clegg allowed a situation to develop where Lord Rennard appears to be running the party, not him?

Yes, there are many questions. But unfortunately, despite my repeated and regular bids, I was told this morning I wouldn’t get the chance to put them to the deputy prime minister. In fact, his aides advised me that the only chance I’d get to query him was at a speech he was giving on mental health.

I felt deeply uncomfortable about this. Mental health is an issue close to my heart – an issue, indeed, I’ve covered repeatedly for Channel 4 News. So to turn up at such an event and ask about politics, scandal and leadership crisis seemed to me unfeeling to say the least. But Mr Clegg’s aides had put me in an impossible position. Despite taking to the Daybreak sofa and swooping into the Today programme studio, they’d told me he wouldn’t be sitting down with me tonight or at any point during the day.

So when I asked my question I was, quite predictably, booed by an audience who’d come to here about mental health troubles, not party political ones.

Mr Clegg gave what can only be described as a dusty answer, so all my other inquiries will have to wait until another day. Is it the case that because I broke the story in the first place, and have spent months following every twist and turn, I’d ask one question too many to the Lib Dem leader at his sensitive moment in his career.

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Certainly, Mr Clegg is now stuck.

If Lord Rennard apologises, his supporters say he’s concerned about the implications of that. Would it be seen as an admission of guilt, leaving his alleged victims free to sue? If the Lib Dem leader finds some cojones and forces his peers to remove the whip from Lord Rennard on the grounds his refusal to apologise has brought the party into disrepute, the peer’s fans have given notice that he’d most likely take the matter to court. And if the Lords this afternoon defy Mr Clegg, and allow Lord Rennard to rejoin their merry band with impunity, the women who first had the courage to speak out won’t let the Lib Dem leader forget that.Furthermore, in that scenario, Mr Clegg would be sharing his parliamentary party with a man who’s openly defied him.

Events are moving so fast that the final question I now won’t get to put is this: is there room in the party for both Mr Clegg and Lord Rennard?

A version of this blog was first published at telegraph.co.uk

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