For anyone seeking to understand why the Liberal Democrats have got themselves into such a mess over the Rennard affair it is worth recalling a conversation between David Laws and William Hague during Coalition negotiations in 2010.
Asked to describe his party, Mr Hague said the Tories were like “an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide”. Mr Laws said the Liberal Democrats were like an “absolute democracy, moderated by very little”.
And that in a nutshell is Nick Clegg’s problem. He would dearly love to remove the whip from Lord Rennard and expel him from the party’s powerful Federal Policy Committee. But Liberal Democrat democratic structures make both impossible.
Membership of the Federal Policy Committee is decided by a vote of all Liberal Democrat members and while Lord Rennard is still a member of the party he cannot be expelled from the FPC.
In Mr Clegg’s ideal world Alistair Webster QC, who examined the allegations, would have concluded that he had a case to answer and it would have then progressed through the party’s disciplinary procedures.
But because party rules say that any case has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, Mr Webster concluded this could not be done. Instead he tried to claim both that the evidence given by the complainants “was broadly credible” while judging that it was not good enough to have a reasonable chance of being proven.
That put Mr Clegg in the invidious situation of defending a position he knew to be untenable while being powerless to do anything about it. The case of removing the whip from Lord Rennard in the House of Lords has posed a similar problem.
Mr Clegg could have instructed the Chief Whip to do this. But if Lord Rennard were to appeal, party rules state that it should be decided by a democratic vote of Liberal Democrat peers. And Mr Clegg knows that a majority of his peers don’t think Lord Rennard should lose the whip. Many are former MPs and parliamentary candidates whom Lord Rennard helped elect and campaign for.
In the face of such an impasse yesterday the party announced a new disciplinary inquiry into whether Lord Rennard has brought the party into disrepute by his failure to apologise.
But this is the worst of all worlds. For Lord Rennard to be expelled from the party for refusing to apologise for something he maintains he has never done and which has never been proved against him really would be an injustice. Democracy is messy. But rules and safeguards should not be overridden for political expediency.