Attempted murder, rent boys, a slaughtered dog: I remember when the Liberal Democrats knew how to cause a scandal

One admires this gift for hot-housing tiny scandalous acorns into mighty oaks


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific