It’s just over an hour since we published Nick Clegg’s statement concerning the allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour levelled against Lord (Chris) Rennard. Here are some quick, initial thoughts:
1) Nick Clegg has stuck by his position, repeated earlier today by Vince Cable and Danny Alexander, that he “did not know about these allegations until Channel 4 informed the party of them shortly before they were broadcast.” However, he was aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct” in 2008, his first year as party leader. He asked Danny Alexander to put these allegations to Chris Rennard, who denied them. We can expect a whole lot more questions around what exactly was known and how rigorously the party’s investigations were. Already right-wing commentators like Fraser Nelson are trying to read sub-texts into why Nick ‘dragged’ Danny into it — perhaps because it’s the truth, Fraser?
2) Chris Rennard’s resignation on health grounds in June 2009 will also be re-subjected to scrutiny. Here’s the statement he made then. It’s worth remembering that, at the time, any speculation about the reasons revolved around his expenses claims — see for instance this post by Mark Littlewood, then blogging as a Lib Den member at Liberal Vision — rather than the allegations that are now being circulated. Chris was subsequently cleared by the parliamentary authorities of breaching any expenses rules.
3) Nick Clegg is angry, genuinely angry, at the press’s reporting, particularly today’s papers. “I am angry and outraged at the suggestion that I would not have acted if these allegations had been put to me. … I will not stand by and allow my party to be subject to a show trial of innuendo, half-truths and slurs.” He makes a point of saying he has spoken to one of the women who appeared on Channel 4 News last week — he doesn’t name her, but I would assume she’s his former special adviser, Bridget Harris — to externally validate this: ” I have today spoken to one of the women in the broadcast who I respect and admire and who confirmed that she had never raised the issue with me.”
4) Significantly, Nick has announced that the review into the allegations and the party’s response to them will be independently chaired. This is a welcome move — as one of the women who has made a complaint, Alison Smith, tweeted afterwards:
Good news, however, that the reviews will now be independently chaired. #rennard
— Alison Smith (@AliFionaSmith) February 24, 2013
It will also be a relief for Tim Farron, the party president, who would have been placed in the impossible position of leading an inquiry into the actions of his party colleagues and own leader. Tim has, I understand, been pushing for an independent review. The party would probably have announced one sooner had Nick Clegg not been on a weekend’s break in Spain at half-term (which I don’t suppose turned out to be very relaxing).
5) This weekend has been a pretty gruesome one for the party. We can expect it to get a whole lot worse. Whenever personnel issues are involved in any organisation there will be horror stories that emerge. And any journalist or political spectator who thinks only the Lib Dems have uncomfortable truths to confront is kidding themselves. But confront them, we must. Nick’s penultimate sentence was his most crucial (and it’s one that’s in danger of getting lost as the media pursues the political angle, and ignores the human one):
The important thing is that we respect the women who have come forward and do everything to get to the truth.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.