Lord Rennard and Pontius Clegg

The saga of Lord Rennard has been enjoyed in many political quarters. Rennard was a man who until these allegations surfaced was unknown even to most politically interested people. He is, however, a significant figure in the Liberal democrats and their recent rise – a rise severely curtailed when they got their snouts to the truffles of power.

There is good reason for many outside the Liberal Democrats to hate Rennard. He evolved an extremely effective campaigning strategy based on local issues and building support in areas prior to making the push to get MPs. This strategy makes it extremely difficult to get Liberal Democrats out once elected. It is probably why Eastleigh was held by them despite Chris Huhne’s imprisonment. It has also left the party open to charges of hypocrisy and playing utterly different campaigns in different areas; sometimes claiming things totally at odds to official party policy. There have even previously been accusations of racism especially Islamophobia and certainly childish xenophobia. Although the use of decidedly unsavoury campaign tactics seems to predate Rennard (classically the infamous Bermondsy byelection where Simon Hughes talked about the “straight choice” between himself and Peter Tatchell) he seems to have perfected a no holds barred campaigning strategy. This sort of behaviour is in stark contrast to the self-presented Liberal Democrat picture of it as the “nicer” party. As such the opportunity to expose the most Machiavellian of its behind the scenes leaders seemed almost too good to be true.

Such is Rennard’s power and influence within the party that it unsurprising that some Liberal Democrats seem keen to row in to support him. Many in the Lords have already done so including Lord Steele and Baroness Shirley Williams as indeed have some Tories such as Norman Tebbit. Some of Rennard’s supporters have tried to minimise the relevance of the alleged behaviour such as putting hands on knees etc. and say it was a different time etc.

That defence is, however, very weak: unwanted sexual advances are not acceptable even in the context of party conferences where one night stands are not unknown. That defence is further undermined by the fact that Rennard was central in candidate selection for winnable seats. In the context of the power differential here sexual harassment is an even bigger problem. In almost any setting of a major employer over the last 20 years such behaviour would have resulted in disciplinary action. That is the central thesis of Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph.

That defence: it was all pretty trivial, is therefore completely unacceptable. Rennard is a sleazy groper and deserves all he gets. Allison Pearson launches something of a diatribe with insults about Rennard’s weight and appearance: indeed he looks like a pantomime sleazy groper (whether Pearson would regard this as less of a problem if Rennard looked like George Clooney is unclear but she majors on Rennards physical unattractiveness to an extent which would be grossly sexist if she were a man referring to a woman).

The problem is that that defence (the claim that it is all trivial) is not Rennard’s defence. Rather, it is that he did not do the things he is accused of. He and his legal adviser (Lord Carlisle) claim that in addition to the 4 women who made the allegations there are another 100 people many of whose statements directly contradict the claims of the supposedly aggrieved parties. An enormous problem is that the fact that the findings of the enquiry into Rennard’s behaviour have not been published. This makes these claims impossible to verify or indeed to refute. The fact that Lord Rennard himself has not been allowed to see the report is actually completely scandalous.

The finding against him is also a bit pathetic: it is that he committed

“behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants” but that “unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way”.
“Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable,”

Herein lies much of the problem: the Liberal Democrats rules apparently require an allegation to be proved to a criminal standard (beyond reasonable doubt). Here there seems doubt. What this looks like is a classic liberal fudge: the report did not clear Rennard nor did it found the allegations proved. One suspects Clegg might have hoped it would all go away. When that failed he hoped Rennard would apologise but Rennard will not either because he fears civil litigation or because he feels he is innocent.

One is left with a series of options. At one extreme it is possible that Lord Rennard is indeed a sexual bully who has tried to use his personal powers of patronage to get sexual favours from these four women: and then quite possibly multiple other women who even now are too cowed to speak out. Another alternative is that he is wholly innocent and these women have misinterpreted his actions: they could have exaggerated or conceivably could have made them up. Allison Pearson again claims that four people making the same allegations makes it likely to be true. That may be: it might also be a conspiracy conceivably of people passed over for political promotion without any sexual issues at all. We have seen several cases recently where there appears to have been a conspiracy to “get” a leading political figure for reasons unrelated to the allegations made (Andrew Mitchell).

There is also the fact that sexual harassment can at times become a “Have you stopped beating you wife” typed question and a “there is no smoke without fire issue.” Neither of these positions are remotely compatible with any semblance of justice but rather become guilty until proven innocent.

Whatever the truth the Liberal Democrats come out of this extremely badly. Their internal processes look a shambles but more than that they are denying anyone sight of the outcome of the report. This has been suggested to be a “wet pinko version of a Stalinist show trial.” They also look as though they are reacting to events and even worse those reactions are tailored not even to the events but to the prevailing public and press mood.

This is not a case of “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” and more a case of finding out whether he is guilty or not in the first place. If there is fault it should have been openly stated and Rennard should have been punished properly the first time (metaphorical stoning entirely appropriate). Instead with the allegation that Rennard has brought the party into disrupte the Liberal Democrats and Clegg look like trying double jeopardy with a very weak catch all allegation.

Nick Clegg has gone from hand wringing to trying to wash his hands of the problem: Pontius Clegg? Though that analogy does not work with Clegg as Rennard may be guilty and Clegg’s wife unlike Pilate’s seems out for blood. Whether Rennard is guilty or not this is a debacle which Clegg is in the process of making worse. Dependent on the truth of the allegation one should feel sorry for either the women or Rennard. Clegg on the other hand deserves very little sympathy for his handling of the affair.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.