Papering over the crack of the elephant in the room

Yesterday was a sad day for the Lib Dems. First, because we lost as chief executive a proven successful campaigner, Lord (Chris) Rennard, who helped save the post-merger Lib Dems from near extinction. And, secondly, because the way in which he was forced to announce his resignation resolved nothing, and was entirely lacking in dignity.

It has been clear to everyone since the News of the World alleged that Chris had claimed £41k in Lords’ allowances after designating his Eastbourne flat as his main residence (rather than his London house) that Chris and the party would need to make a statement – a statement from Chris which clarified his living arrangements, and a statement from the party which explained how it would deal with the claims that Chris had abused the system.

Yesterday Chris and the party decided to issue statements which dealt with neither of those issues. That was a mistake. It was a mistake by Chris. It was a mistake by Nick Clegg, as leader. And it was a mistake by Ros Scott, as Party President and chair of the Federal Executive.

We have perhaps been fortunate that the claims against Chris have been overshadowed by the serious allegations in the Telegraph over MPs’ expenses. Even the media response to his resignation as chief executive has been relatively low-key. But that is not the point.

The point is this: an allegation of impropriety has been made against a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords who is also the party’s chief executive. The party could and should have dealt with this issue more quickly and with greater resolve. It has done no-one any good to have the allegations hanging like a dark cloud over Chris and the party for the past fortnight with no statement from the top. Imagine if this had been an allegation against a Labour or Tory peer in an equivalent position, and imagine what our party press releases would have said about the situation.

Of course these things are never easy. Allegations involving friends and colleagues never are. But if we cannot get right the processes for dealing with our internal difficulties, how can we convince anyone else (or ourselves) that we would be any different and better at reforming the wider political system?

The shame is this: Chris has been a great servant to this party, and he deserved a far more dignified exit than this. I have no reason to doubt for a moment the sincerity of his statement that he is standing down for personal and health reasons. But to claim the timing of his announcement is nothing to do with the allegations against him is to treat the party membership as fools. Assuming the decision was made of Chris’s own volition, it is another example of him putting the party’s interests ahead of his own.

But Chris remains a Lib Dem Parliamentarian, and his resignation does nothing at all to alter the fact that his statement and the party’s should have recognised the seriousness of the allegations, and spelled out the process by which they would be investigated. This has sort of happened with today’s announcement that the Lib Dem leader and chief whip in the House of Lords will undertake a thorough review of our peers’ expenses and allowances. But as ‘Tabman’ pointed out in an LDV comments thread today, why on earth did the party yesterday not issue something like the following statement:

Regarding the specific allegations concerning Lord Rennard, there will be a through review of expenses and allowances in the House of Lords which will draw on the work to be undertaken by the independent external assessor. If after this review has reported back [timescale] Lord Rennard has found to have acted improperly, then he will have to pay the money back / face disciplinary action etc [delete as applicable].”

In the circumstances he faced, Chris’s exit as chief executive was never going to be the happy departure he must have once hoped for. But the one thing he, Nick and Ros should have ensured was closure on the specific allegations. Publicly ignoring them was the very worst choice they could have made.

As a result the majority of yesterday’s comments on LDV did not acknowledge the super-human contribution Chris has made to the Lib Dems, keeping us going in the dark days, through to today’s position of strength. A sad end, badly done.

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46 Comments

  • Perfectly summed-up.

  • “The party is now left like a lamp-post waiting for a passing dog.”

    Yes. The only fortunate thing is that we can be confident the party’s opponents will be too scrupulous to take advantage of the situation.

  • Stephen – excellent post, and not just because you quote me 😉

    I strongly urge everyone in the party to respond directly to Ros Scott’s email in the way Alix urges in her thread on this issue.

  • “Chris says his claims were checked “at every stage” with the Lords’ authorities, and I believe him. So what we appear to be dealing with here is something that applies to more peers than just Chris and was fully authorised by the Lords authorities.”

    How would it make things different if Rennard was officially advised that it was OK to lie about where he lived in order to claim public money he wasn’t entitled to?

    Wouldn’t he still have realised it was wrong? Wouldn’t you hope his reaction would have been to expose the whole rotten system, rather than going along with it for personal gain?

    Even if the claim is that he didn’t realise he was doing anything wrong at the time, does he still not realise it now? Should he not be apologising and making arrangements to pay the money back, rather than trying to justify himself?

  • It would appear that as in the Labour party (Blears)there is a two tier system in the Lib Dem party whereby senior party members are exempt from sanctions.

    Cleggs phantom ‘ton of bricks’

    Who are they trying to kid?

  • Peter Laubach 22nd May '09 - 6:04pm

    I agree 100% with what Stephen has said. It sadly reminds me of the way we went into the last GE with a leader who was known by our top brass to have a drink problem – how could we then have been putting CK forward as a potential PM when the problem was known about by them?

    I voted for Ros and until now had been delighted with her, but find this development disheartening and embarrassing.

  • Martin Land 22nd May '09 - 6:13pm

    In a previous posting before the Federal Executive met, I told our President (I’m making the presumption that she read it) that any newly set standards had to be seen to come from the bottom upwards not from within the Westminster bubble.

    As this has all come down from within the bubble, as you rightly point out, Stephen, it’s a little less than fully transparent.

    I said and will continue to maintain that the only way to fully restore confidence with the electorate and with us poor suckers who pound the streets would be a bottom-up motion coming from conference.

    I love the smell of home made fudge but only when it comes from a sweet factory, not from Cowley Street.

    I didn’t vote for Ros, because I felt that despite her ‘grassroots’ discourse, she was just an another insider. Dear, dear. Right, again.

    Once again, I await the day when we have a truly ‘grassroots’ Party President. It would be so much better for the activists and members and if truth be told, so much better for the party at Westminster.

  • I wrote:
    “How would it make things different if Rennard was officially advised that it was OK to lie…”

    Paul Walter wrote:
    “Now you’re being silly.”

    In what way am I being silly?

    The allegation is that Rennard made a false statement about where he lived in order to claim money he wasn’t entitled to.

    You mentioned that he had said his claims had been “checked” by the authorities. Clearly, that can be relevant only if those authorities were aware that the basis of his claims was false, but told him that was OK.

    But the point I’m making is that even in those circumstances Rennard should still have realised what he was doing was wrong.

  • David Allen 22nd May '09 - 6:47pm

    Paul Walter makes the best of the case, but it amounts to:

    1 – The independent auditor will eventually get round to checking out the Rennard case, so it’s sort of all right. Furthermore, he’ll probably be able to find plenty of other peers in similar situations, and he’ll find that the rules are horribly ambiguous anyway, so it’s certainly all right.

    No it isn’t. By now he should either have paid it back or proved himself in the clear.

    2 – Owning up properly about this would have been “all over the media like a rash”.

    Well yes, alongside Steen, Blears, Hoon, and many others. Cameron has parlayed himself into credit by being properly rough with the likes of Steen. Brown has at least been somewhat rough with his piggy enemies, though earning derision by showing favouritism to his piggy friends. What could yet be all over the media like a rash is, that our leadership is not prepared to be rough with anybody at all. And that is not leadership!

  • I must say that “Guido Fawkes’s” other – insinuations about Rennard not really attending the Lords on the days he claimed – aren’t borne out by his voting record.

    On the other hand, if the News of the World is preparing another set of allegations, it might explain why Rennard finally announced his resignation, after “toughing it out” for nearly a fortnight.

  • Martin Land 22nd May '09 - 9:03pm

    Jennie, Ros has as much power as she wants. If she truly represents the interests of activists and members, she has the power that derives from the people who ACTUALLY run this show.

  • Jennie – Ros could have said (as an example)

    “This is unacceptable, I demand that A, B & C happen. I will propose it to the FE and urge them to support this. And remember, I have a mandate from the whole membership”

  • Richard Gadsden 22nd May '09 - 9:59pm

    Hywel, what can FE do? They can’t withdraw the whip or suspend membership or – well, anything. They can make a public statement and that’s it.

    Well, they can sack Chris as CE, but he’s already quit, so that’s pointless.

  • Rob F

    So members of the electorate don’t even have the right to be represented unless they are present in person?

    Almost worthy of Anthony Steen, that one. No doubt we’re all just jealous of the size of Lord Rennard’s house in Vauxhall …

  • Rob F: Remiss of me, I wasn’t aware that ordinary party members could just roll up and watch the FE in action! The problem is that for so many of us, our whinging stems from fact that whilst all this goes on, we are out on the doorstep, day in day out.

    I did receive a message from Nick Clegg today about the importance of the postal vote. A good message which I was able to read after my youngest son (‘professional day’ today) and I finished off our last of my Division’s 1400 Postal Vote letters – part of the more than 8000 my candidates have got out in our target wards in 48 hours. My point? Nick got that message out – Ros could equally get a message out to the tens of thousands of party members with email addresses and ask them to email all members of the Federal Executive give her their support.

    Hywel is suggesting a more confrontational approach. In these difficult times it may be that type of approach which will assure the electorate of our seriousness in ensuring probity.

  • “And I’d take your views more seriously if you had the courage to write them under your name, Anonymous1”

    Really, that would be a feeble enough evasion of the point, even if you yourself had the courage to write under your real name! (Or are we meant to divine your surname by some process of mental telepathy?)

    But really, is it not in any case rather “extreme” to deny that Ros Scott has a mandate from the membership?

    It really is remarkable to me that people like you are still trying to minimise the enormous anger felt, not only by party members, but by ordinary people in general about the shenanigans of Rennard and his like.

    A couple of days ago I spoke to an ex-colleague who has always been a very strong supporter of the party – and used to complain vociferously to me when there was no Lib Dem to vote for in local elections. His opinion now? “What’s the point of voting for any of them?”

  • Rob F

    Thank you for the instructions. So, if we follow a link and do a bit of searching, we can work out your surname. Great. But as I said, your evasion of the point I was making is a feeble one.

    I don’t believe that any more than a tiny fraction of the membership knew they had any entitlement to attend Federal Executive meetings. I was a member for more than 20 years, and I never knew that. Wasn’t there a discussion here in the last few days about whether the Executive even had any obligation to report on their deliberations (in which, IIRC, Alix asked what was the point of electing people to the FE, if they didn’t)?

    I reckon that if Ros Scott, when she was announcing that the FE would consider this on Monday, had pointed out that all members had the right to attend, then you would have had an uncomfortably full house. And I also reckon we wouldn’t have had to wait four days to hear what had been said at that meeting.

  • Richard
    They could (in the words of Team America) write a strongly worded letter 🙂

    Rob F
    That is frankly a ludicrously ridiculous point. It’s pretty unlikely that people would, in the middle of local elections, travel hundreds of miles to attend an evening meeting in London, which possibly then requires an overnight stay.

    “I have a mandate from a group of people who can be bothered to go to a keyboard and tap out a bit of a whinge”
    What other purpose does LDV serve then 🙂

  • The thing which gets me about all this is not how the membership should be able to get their views across or indeed if the allegations against Chris are true.

    The thing that gets me is…
    Before this particular nugget came up I was upset that on this, the public perception of Clegg vs Cameron is, Camerons done better on expenses. The reason for that is he’s been seen to punish people, even people who are close to him.

    Now this really, was terribly unfair.

    I mean the Lib Dems are lets face it, by far the best on this: they campaign for electoral reform, they campaign for transparency of parliament and they campaigned for expenses reform. So why could Cameron steal the thunder?

    Well at the time it was because his party was worse! And with more ass to kick he could show off his ass kicking.

    Back then I thought isn’t it a huge shame all the Lib Dems are so damn clean! If only there was one REALLY naughty one, ideally as close to the leadership as possible! Hell if there isn’t they should have invented one!

    SO I’m upset about this,
    I’m not that upset about the allegations (I think they’re wrong but meh).
    I’m not that upset that after all the tough talk there’s not been much tough action. Objectively the action seems to fit the relatively ‘crime’.

    What upsets me is that this isn’t an objective issue, this is an emotive campaigning issue. HOW can the Lib Dems drop the ball so massively that Conservatives are seen as tougher on sleeze!

    Irrespective of how bad the allegations are and even irrespective if they are true. This is a massive missed opportunity to demonstrate Lib Dems are serious about being anti-sleeze.

  • Yes, well done Paul an objective rational position on all this, no doubt why you are a lib dem – they’re the party attractive to objective rational people.

    Sadly people willing to dig for the information then view it objectively don’t make up enough of the electorate for this to win you muc h.

    You need to get things in the media (they must be interesting / exciting) which demonstrate your leaderships character. They could’ve had exactly the same final actions but with VASTLY better visibility for the public. Why didn’t they?

  • “Last week, I called for Chris Rennard to explain the situation adequately, or pay the money back, or resign. He’s done the latter, albeit with potential disingenuity by the party in dealing with the media and with a probable lack of transparency.”

    But of course, if you believe Rennard’s statement, his resignation was purely coincidental and nothing to do with the expenses issue. If that were the case, I can’t see why you would see his resignation as resolving the issue.

    If instead we assume that – despite what he said – he resigned because he had acted improperly in claiming this money, then clearly he should be (1) apologising and (2) making arrangements to pay it back. And judging by the FE’s statement, the party should be withdrawing the whip.

  • “Neither necessarily apply.”

    Eh? Either Rennard resigned because of the expenses issue, or he resigned for some other reason.

    If he resigned for some other reason, that doesn’t resolve the issue – in fact it has no bearing on it at all. If he resigned because of the expenses issue, then he should be honest about it, apologise, and pay the money back.

    As for your last paragraph, I’ve made it quite clear that I was a long-standing member, and that I’m not a member any longer. Does that invalidate what I’m saying? Or is the ad hominem stuff just a convenient debating tactic?

  • I don’t know if it is in the constitution but custom and practice has been that they can for “open” business.

    You’d probably need to go the FE standing orders or even chair’s discretion

    There would obviously be an issue if 1500 activists turned up to watch though….

  • Paul

    Do you not think that likening someone to a “demented dog” qualifies as an ad hominem attack? And you complain that anonymous posters can be “aggressive”!

    But frankly I think your latest suggestion does smack of desperation. You think that Rennard may have resigned because of the allegations over his expenses, even though he knew them to be groundless?

    What is the natural reaction of someone against whom false allegations have been made – allegations that are gravely damaging not only to that person, but also to the party to which he has devoted his life?

    Is it not first to deny the truth of the accusations, and then to vindicate himself and his party by proving them false?

    What is the last thing in the world someone would do in that situation? Surely, resigning his post, claiming he was resigning for unrelated reasons, and leaving the truth of the accusations against him completely unchallenged.

    That suggestion really is an insult to the intelligence!

  • Paul

    “Problem?”

    To be honest, I do find it a bit of a problem when people run out of arguments and resort to insults instead. Especially when they’re supposed to be “liberals”.

    And I do think you’d be well advised to avoid using the “you are like a demented dog” line when talking to concerned residents on the doorstep. And as for the “Rennard resigned over his expenses because he’d done nothing wrong” theory, don’t even think about trying that one!

  • I think the elephant in the room is about to be replaced by whales in the swimming pool. Anyone with a spare £2.5m handy?

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