Published on 21 Jan 2014 Sections ,

Lib Dems divided amid threats of legal action

Lord Rennard threatens to sue the Lib Dems after being suspended, while one of the women who says the peer sexually harassed her, also raises the prospect of legal action.

The crisis in the Liberal Democrat party showed no signs of dying down on Tuesday, after Lord Rennard was suspended pending an investigation into whether he has brought the party into disrepute.

The Lib Dem peer has threatened to sue following the suspension, and issued a lengthy statement on Monday afternoon, detailing the “distressing” effect the allegation of sexual harassment have had.

However Bridget Harris, who says she was harassed by the former Lib Dem chief executive, said that she would consider taking legal action against him, depending on how he is dealt with by the party.

Read more from Cathy Newman – how my Rennard question to Nick Clegg got me booed

An independent report last week by barrister Alistair Webster found that the allegations against the peer were credible but could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Mr Clegg urged Lord Rennard to apologise, but the peer said he would not say sorry for something he had not done as it could leave him “defenceless” in any future civil action.

I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants – Lord Rennard

The furore has exposed deep divisions in the party with supporters of the peer claiming he has been subjected to a kangaroo court while others feel swifter, tougher action should have been taken against him. Lib Dem president Tim Farron told Channel 4 News that the allegations were not dealt with properly when they first emerged in 2010.

It has also heaped pressure on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has faced claims he failed “to show moral leadership” in the way he has dealt with the allegations.

‘I regret that they may have felt any hurt’

Lord Rennard said the party leadership had been “unwise” to demand an apology from him, and urged them to “let the matter rest”.

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 – 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.”

Video: Bridget Harris, former special adviser to Nick Clegg, joins Lib Dem President Tim Farron and Harriet Harman MP to discuss the Rennard fall-out.

TIMELINE

2002 Lord Rennard allegedly inappropriately touched Alison Smith for the first time, but she did not make a complaint.

2003 Lord Rennard allegedly inappropriately touched and propositioned Bridget Harris during a conference in Swansea. She complains to her line managers.

2004 Alison Goldsworthy alleges Lord Rennard touched her during a black tie dinner.

2007 Alison Smith again alleges Lord Rennard touched her inappropriately. She reports it to Lib Dem chief whip Paul Burstow, but doesn’t hear back from him, so complains again to MP Jo Swinson who, she claims, says her experience is not unique.

2008 Susan Gaszczak alleges Lord Rennard touched her and propositioned her during a future MPs training weekend. Internal emails later that year indicate Lord Rennard’s behaviour is inappropriate and Danny Alexander is tasked with telling him “the behaviour has to stop”. Women are asked to bring future complaints to Nick Clegg’s office.

2009 Lord Rennard stands down as Lib Dem chief executive, citing ill health.

2012 Lord Rennard begins to return to a more active role in the party, including participation in a “speed-chat” event organised by the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance.

Feb 2013 Channel 4 News and Firecrest Films broadcast allegations that Lord Rennard behaved inappropriately and abused his position. A police investigation begins.

Jun 2013 An investigation by Lib Dem supporter Helena Morrisey finds the party’s system for dealing with complaints was too informal, and says she had uncovered wider examples of “low-level sexism” within the party.

Sep 2013 The police announce that there is insufficient evidence to support a prosecution of Lord Rennard.

Jan 2014 A report by Alistair Webster QC finds that the evidence is not sufficient to meet the burden of proof required by the party’s disciplinary procedures. However Mr Webster advises Lord Rennard to apologise to the women involved.