25 Feb 2013

Clegg, Rennard and that ‘resignation’

One source with a very good claim to know the working of Nick Clegg’s thoughts on the subject described the deputy prime minister to me as “the first leader to do something about (Chris Rennard)” – hardly consistent with the official line that the party reluctantly lost Chris Rennard’s services only due to diabetes. What actually seems to have happened is a secret agreement between the party bigwigs and Lord Rennard to keep the other reasons for his departure quiet.

The truth is that in addition to the rumours of allegations about inappropriate behaviour (strongly denied by Lord Rennard) the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, was amongst a growing number of figures in the party who thought Lord Rennard was past his sell-by date as a campaigning wizard.
Nick Clegg complained privately after taking over the leadership of the Lib Dems of how the party’s chief executive hoarded information, didn’t pool it with colleagues using IT, kept it all in his head.

Mr Clegg also complained about what he perceived as  Lord Rennard’s lack of ambition for the Liberal Democrats. Mr Clegg wanted to aim for 100+ seats and Chris Rennard was wedded to a more focused campaign on a smaller number of seats, each fought with the tenacity of a by-election.

By a twist of fate, that is exactly how Nick Clegg hopes to fight the next general election. But that wasn’t how he saw things in 2009.

When Lord Rennard caught the headlines over his expenses,  one senior activist tells me, the leadership saw the opportunity to ease him out of his post. There would be no mention of any allegations surrounding his behaviour and there would be an understanding that the party would refer to health grounds. Lord Rennard did indeed suffer from diabetes and went on a strict diet losing some weight immediately after leaving his job.

You can imagine how all this must’ve seemed doubly useful to senior figures in the party who might’ve been concerned about the other allegations which Cathy Newman reported on last week.

Nick Clegg in his response to the crisis has probably made things even worse for himself.

He’s already had to retreat from the first comment by his office that he didn’t know about the allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour  until Channel 4 News put them to him – he now says he didn’t know about “specific” or “very specific” allegations.

His statement yesterday evening looked a little brittle. Nick Clegg clearly felt nauseated by the idea that he wouldn’t take such allegations seriously.

But proclaiming your own virtue is rarely as helpful as giving people grounds to observe it for themselves. Arguably, Nick Clegg should’ve focused less on defending his own hurt sense of honour and more on contrition about collective failures in the party.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron’s not always seen as the most diplomatic or measured figure but his admission that “we screwed this up as a party” might have come better from Nick Clegg’s lips. 

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