In the Alice in Wonderland world colonised by the Liberal Democrats, so much is in inverse proportion. The bigger in parliamentary size and political relevance the party has grown, the smaller its scandals have become. The weenier the individual scandal, meanwhile, the more incongruously grandiose the terms in which Lib Dems choose to frame it.
Take L’Affaire Rennard. For all the distasteful groping alleged and all the distress caused to the objects of his purported attentions, it barely qualifies in itself as a micro-scandal. But in recent days it has drawn many analogies from either side of this supposedly nascent civil war. Supporters have likened His Lordship’s quasi-legal treatment to the Salem witch trials, a Ku Klux Klan witch-hunt, and the justice systems of both apartheid South Africa and present-day North Korea. Meanwhile the cry has gone up from regime loyalists for a reconciliation process modelled on that used in Northern Ireland.
By Friday, despite being neither a French soldier nor Jewish, Lord Rennard will have been compared to Alfred Dreyfus; he will have been compared to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, regardless of him not being black or a contender for the world middleweight title; and to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the early Hollywood comic great destroyed by false charges of rape and murder after a woman was found dead in his bed (a crime of which he was eventually acquitted). To his credit, Rennard at least bears a vague similarity to the latter in girth and facial features.
How the wretched, tacky case of one obese, diabetic nebbish accused of trying his luck with naturally repulsed women has brought a party of Government to its knees will intrigue political historians for eons to come. About a fortnight will be enough, though, before they conclude that the one true outrage here is how the paltry scandals of today betray a proud tradition.
Once, the Lib Dems’ precursor instinctively appreciated that a grand political party, even in decline, needs grand political causes célèbres. In 1979, when the Liberals had only 11 MPs, their former leader Jeremy Thorpe stood trial for both attempted murder and conspiracy to murder a week after losing his seat in parliament. Several hours after one of the more infamously biased judicial summations that the Old Bailey has heard, the jury remained deadlocked at 6-6. Like Arbuckle, Mr Thorpe was finally acquitted, but the lingering flavour was one of intoxicating melodrama, laced with rent boys, fiendish plots, and a slaughtered Great Dane dog, Rinka. It would have been fun watching Mr Clegg handling that one.
In recent years, the collapse in the quality of Lib Dem scandal has speeded up alarmingly, and the level of hysteria lavished on their imaginative range of attempts to self-destruct has itself been in inverse proportion to what the facts demanded. Charles Kennedy’s demise was a poignant story of a good and talented man’s career wrecked by drink – a personal tragedy, of course, but a depressingly commonplace tale of woe. Mark Oaten’s bold crack at becoming his successor but one, after the swift garrotting of Menzies Campbell, was drowned in the bath in the company of a later-model rent boy, though whatever picturesqueness that downfall might have had was deflated when Mr Oaten claimed that what drove him to the assignations was mid-life angst occasioned by a receding hair line. David Laws’ expenses-related Cabinet departure after a marathon stint of a fortnight, apparently for being too coy to let on that he was gay, was followed by Chris Huhne’s sneaky conspiracy to preserve his driving licence. That ignited a forest fire of synthetic indignation when the blaze of outrage warranted could have been extinguished by a watering can.
While one admires this arboricultural gift for hot-housing the tiniest of scandalous acorns into mighty oaks, you might have imagined that so much experience would have taught Mr Clegg the facile lesson that the way to kill a potential crisis is to address it directly and candidly at the first opportunity. But once again, the inverse is true. The more experience he has, the more impressive his masterclasses in crisis mismanagement become. The questions about what he knew, when, of Rennard’s alleged misbehaviour, and the dithering while he hid his head beneath a sand dune of arcane regulations, have inflated a petty embarrassment into a dangerous factional struggle, if not a mortal threat to his ostrich leadership.
If this must cost him his job, unlikely as that seems this close to a general election, the consolation is that he has a ready-made successor. It will take an emergency by-election to parachute the saviour back into the Commons. However, any sensible Lib Dem MP will appreciate the symbiotic charm of having the party of low-grade farce led by the lowest-grade political farceur of the age, and stand aside accordingly in Lembit Opik’s favour.