20 Aug 2014

Is the Lord Rennard affair really over for the Lib Dems?

The Liberal Democrats have been in a total mess over the Lord Rennard controversy ever since Cathy Newman revealed for Channel 4 News 18 months ago allegations by several women that the former Lib Dem chief executive had abused his position and made improper and unwanted sexual advances towards them.

Last night, too late for our evening Channel 4 News broadcast, the Liberal Democrats announced that Rennard was being reinstated into party membership.  “This brings the matter to a close,” a spokesman said.

Only it doesn’t bring the matter to a close by any means.

First, several of the women who complained about Rennard are very angry about this decision.

Susan Gaszczak, who resigned her membership a few weeks ago, says large numbers of women will now leave the party.  “The party democracy obviously has no moral compass,” she said today.  “They say we are credible, then fail to act on it, and don’t see the impact this has on women and women voters.”

Another alleged victim, Alison Goldsworthy, said: “Faced with the opportunity to take strong action, the Liberal Democrats have once more failed to act.  It is an outcome of which the party should be ashamed.”

Second, there’s the question of how much Rennard has been reinstated.

The Liberal Democrat high command have made it plain that Rennard will play no role at all in next year’s election campaign.  Which rather suggests the matter hasn’t really been brought to a close at all, and that there remains an air of suspicion, or at least embarrassment.

If Rennard is 100 per cent in the clear, then it’s surely madness for the party not to use the election talents of a man widely regarded, by friend and foe alike, as one of the great election strategists of modern British politics.  Especially when the party is doing so badly in the polls.

Yet the Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron was adamant in an interview with me today that if Chris Rennard was to send him an email with ten points on how the party could beef up its campaign he would feel obliged to ignore the email.  How bizarre.

It’s hard to believe that Chris Rennard won’t try to play some role in the campaign, if only in designing a few leaflets, or privately interpreting polling results.

Chris Rennard’s spokesman today told me he has made no decisions about his future.

But Rennard is a relatively young man, and it’s hard to see him quietly slipping into obscure retirement in his flat on the south coast.  Politics is everything for Chris Rennard – Liberal Democrat politics is everything.  Indeed, friends have repeatedly told me he has no other life.

It’s hard to believe that at some point in the next year or two, Rennard won’t try to slip back into at least one of his old roles.  The disputes of the last 18 months have shown just how popular a figure he is with certain sections of the party, most notably his colleagues in the House of Lords.

Will Rennard now demand he gets his front-bench job back in the upper house?  That decision lies with Nick Clegg and the party leader in the Lords, Lord Wallace.

Other decisions rest with the membership.  Tim Farron also admitted in his interview with me that Rennard would probably be allowed to stand again for election for the party’s federal executive, if he chose to go for it.  In being restored to membership he takes back all the rights of any other party member.

The last time Rennard stood for the Federal Executive – before all the controversy – he topped the poll.  And it seems there’s nothing to stop Rennard standing for the post of party president, if he felt so inclined.  What an even bigger mess that would create.

Last night’s decision has probably bought time for the Lib Dem high command – til the general election at least.  We will probably see very little of Chris Rennard between now and polling day, though all journalists will have their eyes peeled for sightings of him coming and out of party offices.

But after 5 May, I’d expect Lord Rennard to attempt a real comeback, in effect to clear his name, and resume working for the party he loves so much, and which he did so much to build.

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