Lord Rennard: A prominent and powerful 'Rasputin figure' who ruled the Lib Dem machine

Chris Rennard turned the party into credible election winners, writes Martin Hickman

Many voters may be puzzled as to why the media is devoting so much time and space to picking over the suggestion that a seemingly obscure panjandrum in Britain’s third party is a groper.

The Westminster chattering classes know Chris Rennard as the secret of the Liberal Democrats’ recent successes, a backroom guru influential at its London headquarters for decades – the Rasputin of the Liberals. Unlike the swarthy mystic who mesmerised the Imperial Court of Russia with his hypnotic eyes, the 52-year-old peer is unimposing; podgy, bespectacled and balding.

But inside headquarters in Cowley Street, round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, he was just as commanding – and feared.

He ruled the party machine for more than a decade, first as Director of Campaigns and Elections between 1989 and 2002 and then as a chief executive in 2003 to 2009.

His greatest achievement was transforming the Liberal Democrats from the also-rans of British politics into a credible election-winning force. In 2010, the Liverpudlian left the party with sufficient seats to sweep into power for the first time in generations. Having party members sit round the Cabinet table must have seemed a distant prospect when, as a young agent in 1983, he helped return David Alton as the Liberal MP for Liverpool Mossley Hill.

By then, he was used to overcoming the odds: his dentist father had died when he was three and his disabled mother when he was a teenager. He joined the party because its councillors had helped his mother.

During his career as a local agent, then regional agent and then national campaigns supremo, he adopted the philosophy that the Liberals should be the hyper-local, practical party.

Under his guidance, Liberal Democrat councillors ensured that potholes were fixed, lampposts renewed and bent swings in the local park replaced – and that those minor triumphs were then trumpeted in local newsletters slipped into brown envelopes and addressed by hand. He also developed a national strategy to establish the Liberal Democrats nationally, first in toeholds and then strongholds in every part of the UK, rather than being focused in the Celtic fringes. He was a kingmaker who worked closely with successive leaders, first helping Paddy Ashdown’s doubling of seats to 46 at the 1997 general election.

It was he who manoeuvred young Nick Clegg into the safe seat of Sheffield Hallam and, as returning officer in 2007, determined that a batch of late postal votes, that would have handed the leadership to his rival Chris Huhne, were not accepted.

The allegations against Baron Rennard of Wavertree are serious to the party not only because of his prominence and power but also because, amid claims they were brushed aside, they have been transmuted into allegations against the whole party, which has always prided itself on its record on women’s rights.

They are also set against a slump in the polls and a series of scandals besetting some of the party’s best known figures. In recent weeks, Greater Manchester Police has named the late Cyril Smith MP as a groper of teenage boys; lawyers acting for a woman who claims she was indecently assaulted by the Portsmouth MP Mike Hancock are demanding a party inquiry; and the former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne awaits sentencing for perverting the course of justice.

Lord Rennard vigorously denies the allegations, saying that the party did not receive a single complaint against him in his 27 years’ service, to his knowledge. Whatever happens to the allegations, insiders are in no doubt about the scale of his contribution.

One senior peer said last night: “Chris Rennard is one of the best minds and shrewdest strategists I have ever come across in many years.”

The question is whether a party that was for so long a loser conveniently ignored allegations against him, because he was a winner.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m