Lord Rennard has been accused of attempting to portray himself as the true victim of the Liberal Democrat groping scandal, after revealing he had considered self-harm over the allegations.
Breaking his silence with an intensely personal statement, the peer spoke of his long battle with depression – and pointedly refused to apologise to his female accusers.
The statement, released minutes after his party membership was suspended, intensified the turmoil within senior Liberal Democrat ranks over charges that their former chief executive made unwanted sexual advances towards several women.
But his attempt to win sympathy brought a withering response from Susan Gaszczak, a parliamentary candidate, who says she was harassed by him. “I am upset he’s trying to portray himself as the big victim. He’s not the victim,” she said.
Nick Clegg’s leadership is coming under fresh pressure with Lord Rennard expected to mount a legal challenge to a decision to strip him of the party whip in the Lords.
In his statement, Lord Rennard, who denies all the allegations, said he had suffered “severe stress, anxiety and depression” for much of his life and described his black mood when he faced allegations of sexual impropriety in 2010. “The depth of depression that I felt and the consideration of self-harm is difficult to describe, so I will not do so,” he wrote.
The peer said 27 years’ serving the party had done “great damage to his health” and that he was warned six years ago he was entering “a high-risk zone for a stroke or heart attack”.
He claimed he had been the victim of smears, both over his expenses and a “whispering campaign from those bearing personal grudges”.
The peer regretted “any hurt, embarrassment or upset” he had inadvertently caused anyone. But he said: “I will not offer an apology to the four complainants. I do not believe people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.”
He accused the Liberal Democrat leadership of treating him unfairly and said the party should have let the matter rest when an internal investigation by Alistair Webster QC concluded “no further action” was necessary.
The peer’s ally, the MEP Chris Davies, said other people could have been “driven close to suicide” if they had been subjected to the same treatment as Lord Rennard.
Lord Rennard said he was taking “legal advice with a view to civil action against the party”. The move would trigger a vote of Liberal Democrat peers, many of whom are sympathetic to him, to decide whether or not to readmit him.
One told The Independent: “If Chris Rennard hadn’t given his life to the party, many Lib Dem MPs would not be in Parliament and Nick Clegg would not be Deputy Prime Minister.”
His refusal to back down came after Mr Clegg told him he would not be allowed to sit on the Liberal Democrat benches unless he apologised. Minutes before the Lords was due to hold its first session, it was announced Lord Rennard was being suspended from the party and would face a fresh disciplinary investigation for bringing the party into disrepute by refusing to apologise.
A party spokesman said the move meant he could not resume the Liberal Democrat whip. In his statement Lord Rennard said: “It is impossible to describe how enormously distressed I am by this situation and I am certainly too ill to attend the House of Lords.”
Bridget Harris, one of the women who alleged she was harassed by the peer, welcomed the decision to suspend him. “I think Nick felt deeply responsible that all of this happened and technically, on paper, it felt like there was very little the leadership could do,” she said.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat International Development minister, said: “I am very sorry for Chris personally. He is clearly in deep distress over this, but so are the women who have suffered over the years. On my part, I think an apology is in order.”