Nick Clegg has declared that former Liberal Democrat chief executive Lord Rennard should apologise over allegations of sexual harassment before rejoining the party's group in the House of Lords.
Disciplinary action against Lord Rennard was dropped by the Liberal Democrats when Alistair Webster, the QC investigating claims of sexual harassment, concluded the allegations could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
He recommended, however, that Lord Rennard apologise and change his behaviour, and his call was endorsed by Mr Clegg, for whom the issue was increasingly being seen as a test of his leadership.
A Lib Dem spokesman said: “Nick Clegg is of the view that, as long as Lord Rennard refuses the very reasonable request from Alistair Webster QC to apologise, that it is inappropriate for him to rejoin the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords. Nick has communicated this to the Chief Whip and Leader of the House of Lords group.
"In addition, a growing number of party members have come forward to make representations to the party that Lord Rennard's refusal to apologise in itself brings the party into disrepute.
“The Lords Chief Whip and leader of the House of Lords group will be discussing the matter with party HQ and will review the reinstatement of the whip on this basis.”
While concluding that the evidence against Lord Rennard was insufficient to prove the sexual harassment allegations made against him, Mr Webster found that there was credible evidence the peer had “violated” the personal space of women.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said there was frustration that the party's rules meant Lord Rennard could not be thrown out: “ There is a lot of frustration after this very strong report that the party's rules do not permit that action.”
He told BBC2's Newsnight that Mr Clegg and the Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron, were in close discussions “seeing how we can proceed and whether our rules need revisiting”.
Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, who has been acting as Lord Rennard's legal adviser, claimed the former chief executive had already rejoined the party's group in the Lords earlier this week.
Asked if Lord Rennard would apologise, Lord Carlile said: “No, because there's no reason why he should because he has denied these allegations which have not been tried. Alistair Webster should not have said that.”
Pressure on Lord Rennard intensified when more than 120 Liberal Democrat members signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph demanding that until he apologises he should be barred from the party whip. They wrote: “We believe that until he apologises and acknowledges the distress that his actions have caused, regardless of intent, he should never have had the Liberal Democrat whip restored and should be barred from any party body or involvement in any party activity that might facilitate a repeat of this situation. No apology; no whip.”