The Liberal Democrats’ calamitous handling of the Lord Rennard sexual harassment allegations looks set to be arbitrated by the courts after the peer’s supporters indicated he would if necessary take legal action to retain his position in the House of Lords.
On Friday, under huge internal pressure, Nick Clegg announced he would instruct the party in the Lords to remove the whip from Lord Rennard unless he apologised for alleged inappropriate behaviour towards female party members.
But Lord Rennard’s legal adviser said the former chief executive should not apologise, given no claims against him had been proven by an official party inquiry.
Lord Carlile of Berriew, who sits as a Liberal Democrat peer, indicated that, should the whip be withdrawn, Lord Rennard would take legal action against the party. Such a move would have to be voted on by Liberal Democrat peers – and could happen as soon as today if Lord Rennard tries to take his seat in the chamber .
“I was present when Lord Rennard told the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in the Lords, Lord Newby, last Wednesday that he was returning to the whip,” Lord Carlile told Sky News. “I was present when it was accepted, they shook hands. Three or four days later we have a press release from the leader of the party suggesting some arbitrary procedure which the party’s rules don’t provide for.
“If he has the whip removed from him in inappropriate circumstances then I have no doubt Lord Rennard will be taking legal advice and the matter could end up in the law courts. Nobody wants that to happen [but] I don’t begin to understand why Nick Clegg has intervened after a process which has been concluded in Lord Rennard’s favour.”
Lord Rennard is understood to feel that any general apology he made would be deemed unacceptable by his opponents – while any more specific apology would lay him open to civil legal action. In a comment made on Facebook, the peer said: “An appeal and further legal actions are threatened, so I could not apologise in any event even if justified (which it is not).”
The Liberal Democrats’ inept handling of the affair led one of the original complainants to resign. Bridget Harris, one of four party activists who made allegations against the peer, accused Mr Clegg of being reluctant to enter a row with party grandees in the Lords. She said that Liberal Democrat peers “didn’t have a vote over Rennard’s reinstatement; they had a unilateral announcement by the Chief Whip that Lord Rennard was being brought back, and those peers cheered”.
Alistair Webster QC, who investigated the allegations, said he could not understand how it was contentious for Lord Rennard to apologise. “I viewed Lord Rennard as being someone who would wish to apologise to those whom he had made to feel uncomfortable. I would consider it to be common manners,” he said.
A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party had received “dozens” of complaints from members claiming Lord Rennard had brought the party into disrepute by his failure to apologise. He added the party would now consider whether these represented new grounds to reopen disciplinary proceedings against him.
What is it about male politicians that they seem to have such problems dealing with women?
Lib Dem leader to face decisive vote on whether to allow Lord Rennard to return