Fresh questions over what Nick Clegg knew about sexual misconduct allegations involving his most senior party official were raised last night when a female MP suggested she had reported the claims to the very top of the party.
Jo Swinson, who is now Lib Dem minister for women, was told by a number of female activists about allegations of improper touching and harassment by Lord Rennard, the then chief executive of the party, as far back as 2008. In an extraordinary statement last night, Ms Swinson said: "I took action and ensured that others took action" – suggesting that she had reported the claims higher up the Lib Dem hierarchy.
The Deputy Prime Minister caved in to pressure over the nature of an investigation into Lord Rennard's conduct after some inside the party expressed concern that it was being dealt with internally, resulting in further claims of a cover-up. Tim Gordon, the Lib Dems' current chief executive, announced that a separate inquiry by the party president, Tim Farron, into how the party dealt with the allegations against Lord Rennard will be backed by an independent panel from outside the party. Suggestions that top officials including Mr Clegg knew about the allegations but failed to act will form part of the inquiry process, The Independent on Sunday understands.
A message on Facebook sent by one of the women to a friend four years ago, revealed last night, suggested that Mr Clegg knew about Lord Rennard's alleged behaviour. She wrote: "I just don't know how Nick can know and not do anything." The Lib Dems said they were unaware of the message, revealed in The Mail on Sunday.
Mr Clegg has denied being aware of the allegations made by several women to Channel 4 News, but the party has refused to say whether he knew about more general allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of Lord Rennard. A Lib Dem party spokesman refused to say what action Ms Swinson took and whether she reported this to Mr Clegg.
Yet it has been established that several members of Mr Clegg's office had been alerted to the allegations. His chief of staff, Jonny Oates, was told about complaints by women that were put to Lord Rennard by The Daily Telegraph in April 2010, a month before the election. Mr Clegg's deputy chief of staff, Alison Suttie, was also informed as early as 2008. This suggests that Mr Clegg either knew about the allegations himself but turned a blind eye or was not on top of events involving the most senior official in his party.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who was on holiday with his family in Spain when the allegations erupted on Thursday, acted after more details emerged of a climate of fear inside the party, with some Lib Dems saying people were "petrified" to come forward for fear of reprisals.
In her statement, Ms Swinson said: "My focus throughout has been to protect the women who confided in me and, our shared objective, to prevent other women experiencing this kind of behaviour. All the time I was careful to respect their wish for privacy and, for that matter, their right not to be harassed by the press.
"I took action and ensured that others took action. I told the women who had confided in me what I had done to try to put a stop to any inappropriate behaviour, and encouraged them to let me know if they became aware of any further incidents.
"I welcome the review into how the party responded to this situation so that lessons can be learned. It is important that a proper process is followed, and I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to the review."
When the first allegations were reported by Channel 4 News on Thursday, Mr Clegg ordered an inquiry to be led by Mr Farron. But The IoS understands that a number of party figures were aghast that the inquiry was being conducted internally.
Anyone who wishes to come forward with complaints about misconduct can contact the party's whistleblowing representative, Baroness (Kate) Parminter, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr Farron will be joined by the Lib Dem peer Baroness Brinton and Jane Smithard, a barrister and Lib Dem activist, and two others.
A female colleague of Lord Rennard told The IoS last night: "He's a very loyal friend and brilliant strategist. I have never seen him behaving inappropriately with anyone. He is absolutely not the sort of person to force himself on anybody. This smells to me like score-settling from the past. The timing of this is very curious."
Lord Rennard has denied the allegations made on Channel 4 News, saying in a statement: "I absolutely deny any suggestion of improper touching, nor did I invite a woman to join me in my room. I note that these alleged instances supposedly took place in public bars with other people present.
"Let me reiterate that in 27 years of working for the Liberal Democrat party, not a single personal complaint was ever made against me to my knowledge."