Lib Dem sexual harassment scandal: Nick Clegg changes story on Lord Rennard resignation and sex-pest claims

Deputy PM's new explanation dismays Lib Dems ahead of crucial Eastleigh by-election

The turmoil within Liberal Democrat ranks over Lord Rennard deepened last night after Nick Clegg admitted that allegations of sexual harassment were a factor in the peer's decision to quit as the party's chief executive.

To the dismay of MPs, the Deputy Prime Minister dramatically altered his explanation for Lord Rennard's surprise resignation in 2009, which had previously been blamed on ill health. His comments were rejected by the peer's friends, who said he had been warned by his doctors that he could be dead within a year unless he led a less stressful lifestyle.

And last night the party's most senior female politician, Baroness Williams of Crosby, spoke out in support of Lord Rennard, claiming the charges against him had been "hopelessly exaggerated".

The furore sparked by claims that Lord Rennard propositioned as many as 10 young Liberal Democrat activists has convulsed the party, raised fresh questions about Mr Clegg's leadership and hit its campaign for today's pivotal by-election in Eastleigh.

The peer has strenuously denied the claims and said he had never received a complaint about his conduct during his entire time with the party.

Quizzed yesterday about Lord Rennard's departure, Mr Clegg said: "He left on health grounds but the issues of his inappropriate behaviour were in the background – of course they were."

Mr Clegg repeated his assertion that only "general concerns" – and not specific complaints – about the peer had been brought to his attention. However, he disclosed that his former chief of staff, Danny Alexander, had confronted Lord Rennard, telling him his alleged behaviour was "totally unacceptable".

Alison Smith, a former Liberal Democrat activist at the centre of the allegations, last night contradicted Mr Clegg's previous claims that no formal allegations were made about Lord Rennard. Ms Smith said she had offered to make a formal complaint to Paul Burstow, the then Chief Whip in 2007, but "kept hitting brick walls".

The Liberal Democrat leadership's changing accounts in response to complaints about the peer were condemned by its MPs. One said: "When you are in a hole you are supposed to stop digging." Another senior figure said: "The handling of this whole affair has been just dire."

A friend of Lord Rennard insisted the explanation given for his resignation was genuine. He said: "Chris was seriously ill. The doctors had told him he should leave the post on health grounds."

Fresh allegations that Mr Clegg was warned that Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, allegedly made advances to women but did nothing about it emerged last night. Mr Clegg allegedly received a written complaint in March 2011 about the behaviour of Mr Hancock but did not reply, the Daily Mail reported.

The Conservative Business minister, Michael Fallon, ridiculed his Coalition partners' handling of the crisis. "One of the reasons that the Lib Dems are in trouble is that they have not been straight about this," he told the BBC.

"The reason it has gone on for a week is that first they said it wasn't happening, then they only heard it in general terms; now they have said they have heard the specific allegations, they are saying it was something to do with why Lord Rennard resigned."

Lady Williams conceded Westminster was a "very bullying place, a very masculine culture" which meant women were "not treated very fairly". But she added: "Chris Rennard in my view is a very fine man."

The Deputy Prime Minister conceded that his party made "very serious mistakes" in failing to deal adequately with the complaints of sexual harassment. "It is crucial that you treat people with respect and dignity in everything you do – and that is what I expect of people in the organisation I lead," Mr Clegg said.

"That, clearly, did not happen here, to put it mildly."

Timeline of denial: Clegg's contradictions

22 February

“Nick Clegg was not aware of these allegations until the party was contacted by Channel 4.” (Lib Dem spokesman)

24 February

“When indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct reached my office in 2008, we acted to deal with them.” (Nick Clegg)

“[Lord Rennard] resigned as chief executive on health grounds.” (Nick Clegg)

25 February

“Until last week no specific allegations were put to me.” (Nick Clegg)

27 February

“[Rennard] left on health grounds but the issues of his inappropriate behaviour were in the background, of course they were.” (Nick Clegg)

“There was this sort of general concern … [Danny Alexander] meets Rennard, says, ‘If you’re doing this kind of thing you must stop now.’  He vociferously denied it all.” (Nick Clegg)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Buyer / Planner

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity has ar...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity working ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Journals Manager

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The prime focus of the role is to assist...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks