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
  • Get to the point
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: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role will cover all areas ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss