Scotland Yard last night launched an inquiry into allegations that the former Liberal Democrat chief executive, Lord Rennard, sexually harassed several women.
The move came as a former party employee told The Independent that senior Liberal Democrats had discussed the allegations surrounding the peer six years ago.
She spoke out as the questions piled up for Nick Clegg , the Deputy Prime Minister, about how much he knew about claims the peer groped and propositioned several women. Letters released yesterday, written in 2010 to one of his closest aides, cast doubt on his insistence that he only knew about the accusations in "non-specific terms".
Lord Rennard, who was chief executive for six years until stepping down, citing ill health, strenuously denies all the claims. He said he was "deeply shocked" by the allegations, which he described as a "total distortion" of his character.
In a statement yesterday, the Metropolitan Police said it had been approached by party officials to investigate the claims that have surfaced about the peer in recent days. "We are working with them to ascertain whether or not any criminal activity has taken place."
The disclosure by Channel 4 News last week that several women – including party workers Alison Smith and Bridget Harris, a former adviser to Mr Clegg – came forward to make complaints about the peer's alleged conduct, which were then not acted upon, has paralysed the party and cast a shadow over its Eastleigh by-election campaign. Ellie Cumbo, organiser in 2006-07 of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Gender Balance, disclosed that she was well aware of the complaints facing Lord Rennard when she worked for the party. She said she discussed them at the time with Jo Swinson, who is now the Equalities Minister.
She said: "I remember the phone call when Jo Swinson told me she had spoken to Alison herself, and that the information had been passed to Paul Burstow, the Chief Whip. And I know key members of staff at Lib Dem HQ were also aware of all this."
Ms Cumbo told The Independent: "I spoke to Alison herself after she'd told Jo and she told me the same account as given to Channel 4 last week. She was concerned there should be safeguards to protect other women taking part in training and mentoring."
She added: "I'm afraid I left my post with the party before I found out what the result was. It was only when Channel 4 contacted me that I became aware nothing had been done.
"I did believe, as did others, that when Rennard left it was because of this. I'm beyond surprised to learn that nobody apparently spoke to Ali after Jo did."
Ms Swinson has confirmed she investigated the women's claims, but was "careful to respect their wish for privacy". In a radio interview yesterday, Mr Clegg insisted that "no very specific allegations" about Lord Rennard's alleged conduct were put to him until the party was contacted last week by Channel 4.
But The Daily Telegraph yesterday released an exchange of letters with Jonny Oates, Mr Clegg's chief of staff, dating from April 2010 during the election campaign. It contained dates and details of five alleged incidents involving the peer, said it knew the identities of the women involved and queried whether Mr Clegg had been informed about the claims. It also said one of the alleged incidents had been witnessed by Matthew Hanney, who worked in Mr Clegg's private office.
Mr Oates, who was the party's director of policy and communications at the time, replied that Mr Clegg had not been informed. Last night, he said he checked the claim with Mr Hanney, who told him he had not witnessed any such incident and repeated that he did not pass on details of the allegations to the Liberal Democrat leader.
In a further development last night, the broadsheet reported that Helen Jardine-Brown, a former Liberal Democrat head of fundraising, was "forced out" of the party and made to sign a gagging order after telling senior party figures of allegations about Lord Rennard four years ago. She was said to have reached a £50,000 settlement conditional on her silence.
The party's president Tim Farron, who is conducting one of two internal investigations into the allegations, admitted it had "screwed up" in its handling of the allegations. The party's campaign plans for Eastleigh were rapidly rewritten as Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, scrapped plans to travel to the Hampshire constituency. The official explanation was that he wanted to be in Westminster to hear a statement from George Osborne on the decision by the ratings agency Moody's to downgrade the UK's credit rating.
Peer pressure: growing list of liberal democrats with questions to answer
The Deputy Prime Minister appeared to have weathered the immediate storm over the allegations levelled against Lord Rennard last week when he said he had known nothing about them until a Channel 4 News report. Now the embattled Lib Dem leader, dogged by dismal poll ratings, faces questions about the timing and depth of his knowledge of claims against influential peer.
The Minister for Women is in an uncomfortable position over the allegations levelled against Lord Rennard. One of the peer's alleged targets, Alison Smith, claims to have been told by Ms Swinson that an investigation could go no further because no one would make a formal complaint. Ms Smith said she had wanted to make a formal complaint, describing the situation as "Kafkaesque".
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury occupied the position now held by Jonny Oates when "indirect and anonymous concerns" were raised about Lord Rennard to the Lib Dem leader's office in 2008. Mr Alexander says he put those claims to the peer in "strong terms". In the face of a strong denial, Mr Alexander insists the party could do little to advance its investigations.
The Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg finds himself in the spotlight following evidence that he was made aware of detailed allegations against Lord Rennard in April 2010. He was director of election communications at the time. Mr Oates is a former director of PR company Bell Pottinger and has been named as the fifth "most-influential" Lib Dem.
While serving as Lib Dem Chief Whip in 2007, Mr Burstow was approached by Alison Smith, then a party activist, with claims that she had been touched inappropriately by Lord Rennard at his south London home. Ms Smith said the Sutton and Cheam MP said he would contact her again but failed to do so. An investigation against the peer stalled when complainants declined to go on the record.
The senior political advisor to the Liberal Democrat leader, lauded as being in touch with the party's grassroots opinion, is claimed to have witnessed the alleged groping of a prospective female MP at a party in December 2007 to celebrate Mr Clegg's election victory. Part of Mr Hanney's role is to act as a bridge between Nick Clegg and party activists.