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.