Lib Dems in crisis: Lord Rennard - from kingmaker to king breaker?

He played a pivotal role in Nick Clegg's rise. But now the party leader is under pressure to reveal what he knew when about the sexual misconduct allegations engulfing the peer

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Indy Politics

On a freezing day in Westminster on December 2007, Lord Rennard held the future of the Liberal Democrat party in his hands – and not for the first time. The peer, who was the party's chief executive, elections strategist and returning officer for the Lib Dem leadership contest, found himself with 1,300 ballot papers that had come through the post, held up by the pre-Christmas rush, after the deadline two days earlier. He asked the two contenders, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, whether they wanted an official count of the extra papers. Mr Huhne said there should be, but Mr Clegg resisted. The decision was Lord Rennard's, and he insisted the rules had to be abided by.

An unofficial check of the late papers suggested that Mr Huhne would have been the victor. But Lord Rennard's decision to stick to the rulebook allowed him to announce the next day that Mr Clegg had edged it – by 511 votes. The existence of the late ballots would be kept secret. Mr Clegg had a lot to thank Lord Rennard for.

The incident shows not just how powerful Lord Rennard was – and remained until last week, when he stood aside from the Lib Dem whip in the Lords over sexual misconduct allegations – but also offers a glimpse into how the Liberal Democrat party maintains a culture of secrecy. It is no wonder that one of the women who has made allegations of sexual impropriety against Lord Rennard has spoken of the "Kafkaesque" nightmare she went through to try to get her complaint dealt with. The Lib Dems' small size allows the party to operate a form of omerta when senior figures are in trouble.

The key questions facing Mr Clegg this weekend are what did he know of any allegations – including, but also beyond, those specific ones made by women on Channel 4 News – about Lord Rennard? Was he involved in attempts to keep the allegations a secret? And, if so, why did he turn a blind eye?

As far back as 1997, Mr Clegg's talents had been spotted by Lord Rennard. Mr Rennard, as he was then, gave a strong recommendation for Mr Clegg to run for the East Midlands seat in the 1999 European elections, which he went on to win. Just two years later, after the 2001 election, Lord Rennard, who by then had 20 years' experience of election strategising, was marking Mr Clegg out for Westminster – seeing the young MEP as potential leadership material. In 2002 he identified Sheffield Hallam, a safe Lib Dem seat, as a bolthole for him, after the sitting MP, Richard Allan, indicated he wanted to step down in 2005.

In the wider party, Lord Rennard's influence was felt at every level. He was appointed party chief executive in 2003, as a reward for being election strategist to Paddy Ashdown and later Charles Kennedy as leaders, increasing the Lib Dem tally of MPs from 18 to 46 in 1997. But, as insiders reported last night, Lord Rennard was more powerful than his party leader. In spring 2004, after Mr Kennedy failed to turn up to the Budget debate in the Commons, Lord Rennard was among a tight group of senior figures who confronted the leader about his drinking. He suggested Mr Kennedy should seek treatment. But, crucially, the issue was kept a secret for nearly two more years until the leader admitted he was an alcoholic in January 2006. When Mr Kennedy made his bombshell statement it was Lord Rennard who ushered him in and out of the room, his hands, as ever, on the leadership.

And when Mr Kennedy's successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, resigned as leader 19 months later, Lord Rennard was present, among several senior figures who made it clear to Sir Menzies that they could not support him.

Under Mr Clegg, Lord Rennard's influence remained all-pervading. But by 2009, it has now emerged, women had complained about his behaviour to people within the Lib Dem hierarchy. Bridget Harris, special adviser to Mr Clegg until a few months ago, told Channel 4 News that the peer touched her legs and knees while they had coffee at the 2003 party conference in Swansea.

In 2004, it is alleged, he "intimately groped" a female party candidate, and did so again at Christmas 2007, at a party to celebrate Mr Clegg's leadership victory. In 2007, Alison Smith, then a Lib Dem activist and now an Oxford University politics lecturer, alleged that she and a friend were touched inappropriately by Lord Rennard while at his house in Stockwell, south London. A researcher for a Lib Dem MP is understood to have left an event at a party conference in tears after allegedly being propositioned by Lord Rennard. The peer has denied the allegations.

Although Ms Smith complained to Paul Burstow, then the Lib Dem chief whip, and Jo Swinson, who was the party's spokeswoman on equality and is now minister for women, no formal action was taken. In May 2009 Lord Rennard announced he was standing down as chief executive for "health and family" reasons. The peer, like many parliamentarians, was facing claims about his expenses, and Westminster insiders suspected this was at least partly behind his resignation. But Lib Dem figures last night suggested that complaints from women contributed to the decision. If that is so, can it really be the case that Mr Clegg, who would have been involved in Lord Rennard's leaving, did not know?

This is what the independent investigation will have to uncover – and break the Lib Dem culture of secrecy once and for all.

Questions for Nick Clegg

The Independent on Sunday put the following questions to the Liberal Democrats yesterday. The party responded: "Nick Clegg was not aware of the allegations raised in the Channel 4 report" and added that an inquiry was now looking into the matter.

Did Nick Clegg know about general allegations relating to Lord Rennard's sexual impropriety, rather than just the specific ones alleged by Channel 4 News, before last week?

What was the reason Lord Rennard stood down as chief executive in 2009? Was it related to allegations of sexual impropriety?

Was Lord Rennard sacked?

Did anyone ever come to Nick Clegg with concerns about Lord Rennard's behaviour?

Did Baroness Ros Scott raise concerns about Lord Rennard's behaviour with Nick Clegg or anyone from the leader's office while she was president in 2009?

Did Alison Suttie, Mr Clegg's deputy chief of staff, tell her boss about the allegations?

When The Daily Telegraph put allegations about Lord Rennard to Jonny Oates, Mr Clegg's chief of staff, in April 2010, were these passed on to anyone else in the leader's office, including Mr Clegg?

What action did Jonny Oates or anyone in the leader's office take following The Daily Telegraph's allegations?

Was Lib Dem president Tim Farron aware of allegations relating to Lord Rennard's sexual impropriety before last week?