Nick Clegg’s job on the line: Lib Dem leader to face decisive vote on whether to allow Lord Rennard to return

Jane Merrick and Mark Leftly on how a report – that virtually no one has read – is becoming the focus of a test of Nick Clegg’s leadership

Nick Clegg’s leadership is to be put on the line in a showdown vote over whether Lord Rennard can rejoin the Liberal Democrats, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Angry Lib Dem peers are planning to openly defy the Deputy Prime Minister by blocking a demand that Lord Rennard apologise over sexual harassment allegations, in what would be the most damaging blow yet to Mr Clegg’s authority. Supporters of Lord Rennard – who are understood to be numerous in the Upper House – are planning to use the vote as a test of Mr Clegg’s leadership, and indications are that the ballot would deliver a victory for Lord Rennard.

With the Lib Dems facing their most serious split in several years, there are also moves by both supporters and opponents of Lord Rennard to use the upcoming contest for deputy leader as a “proxy battle” in what is developing into a Lib Dem civil war.

In other developments:

* It was revealed that Lord Rennard issued a qualified apology to one of the complainants in January 2011;

* Mr Clegg is considering launching fresh disciplinary proceedings against Lord Rennard over his failure to give a full apology;

* There was anger and disbelief that a report by Alistair Webster, the independent QC who investigated the harassment allegations, had not been seen by Lord Rennard’s team or even Mr Clegg – with one peer comparing the process to plans for “secret courts”, and one of the female complainants asking for the report to be published;

* The IoS has learned that Lib Dem cabinet ministers were among those who have urged Mr Clegg to stiffen resolve against Lord Rennard;

* Lord Rennard’s supporters say he cannot risk apologising for something he denies in case the complainants launch civil actions against him.

The controversy resurfaced last week when Mr Webster’s report was published. The QC concluded that Lord Rennard, the former Lib Dem election campaign chief and one of the most powerful people in the party, had caused “distress” to a number of women activists and that their claims were “credible”. Mr Webster said that there were  no grounds for disciplinary action because he could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had acted inappropriately, but recommended that the peer should apologise and consider his behaviour in future.

Lord Rennard refused to say sorry and vowed to resume his party roles, including as a member of the Lib Dem group of the Lords and a position on the party’s policy board, which is writing the 2015 manifesto.

On Friday, Mr Clegg issued an  ultimatum to Lord Rennard by asking Lord Newby, the Lib Dem chief whip in the Lords, and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the leader of the Lib Dem peers group, to refuse to reinstate the whip unless he apologised.

The IoS understands that Lord Newby and Lord Wallace are broadly sympathetic to their leader, but party rules state that peers can stage a vote over whether an individual regains the Lib Dem whip. A number of peers contacted by this paper confirmed that there would be a vote. One senior peer said: “This is for the Lords group to make a decision. We are independent and we have our own leader. People do jealously guard that independence. We are a democracy. We are against secret courts and Chris cannot be tried in a secret court.”

A long-serving Liberal Democrat MP said: “It is certainly the case that strength and breadth of support for Lord Rennard in the Lords is quite eyebrow-raising. You have to remember that the Lords is stuffed full of lawyers who are angry over the cavalier way that proper procedure has been thrown to the wind.”

A supporter confirmed there could be a civil action against Lord Rennard, adding: “The moment you make an apology, that apology becomes evidence against him. He would be off his head to apologise.”

More than 100 Lib Dem activists signed a letter on Friday demanding that the whip not be reinstated without an apology from Lord Rennard. Party sources said more complaints were expected this weekend. Mr Clegg was backed by the former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown, who tweeted: “Chris Rennard and the Whip; I agree with Nick.” Other Liberal Democrat peers, including some women members, also support Mr Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister can ask for a fresh disciplinary process to be launched if there are complaints that Lord Rennard has brought the party into disrepute and sources said his failure to apologise was grounds for a new investigation.

But the Lib Dem peers group is fiercely independent and, at its weekly parliamentary party meeting last Wednesday, news that Lord Rennard would be returning was met with loud cheers in his support. Another senior figure expressed dismay at the Lib Dems’ entire party structure, saying that the leader has “all the effing responsibility but hardly any of the power”. Lord Rennard’s friend and legal representative, the Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, has gone on the attack, comparing the way the party leadership has handled the issue to “North Korea”.

The IoS understands that, in January 2011, Lord Rennard met face to face with one of the complainants. The party’s former president Baroness Scott was present as a witness to the meeting in central London. Lord Rennard said he was sorry to the woman, but the apology was qualified, along the lines of “if he had done anything that she didn’t like then he was sorry”, according to sources. Lord Rennard did not know the details of the complainants allegations and therefore could not offer an unconditional apology.

The Lib Dem spring conference is being held in York in March and there are fears that, unless the row is contained, it could spill over on to the platform, with talk of an emergency motion.

Lib Dem MPs are planning to vote next week in the party’s deputy leadership election. Lorely Burt, the MP for Solihull, is being urged to use the contest as a platform for enhancing the status of women in the party. Sir Malcolm Bruce, who is standing down as an MP at the next election, is planning to announce his candidacy this week. Senior figures are concerned that, with Mr Clegg focusing on government, the party is in need of a “strong and safe pair of hands” to see the Lib Dems through what is being described as one of the most dangerous and unstable periods in its recent history.

“There has been a lot of frustration with Clegg’s leadership in the Lords,” added a senior Liberal Democrat peer. “There is a view that the party needs someone like Sir Malcolm Bruce ... to distract the Deputy Prime Minister from the advice he is being given by special advisers and party officials.”

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