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
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee