The Lord Rennard saga unfolds as two entirely separate narratives. The first conforms to every cliché in British politics. This is a “test” of Nick Clegg’s leadership, which is on the line. Meanwhile the peer must “apologise”.
Understandably, Clegg has responded to this familiar narrative and pulled the limited levers available to him in an attempt to pass the test of leadership. He cannot declare that this is not a test once such a narrative is in place. Clegg took the convoluted route of the Regional Parties Committee to suspend Rennard’s membership. It was the only route available to him in his party’s Byzantine constitution.
Equally understandably, Rennard has been a reluctant apologist, refusing to respond entirely to the outlines of the first political story. That is because there is a second more complex narrative, and that is the real one.
Let us take Clegg’s position first. When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair once told me that most days he faced decisions that came down to the same basic dilemma: “Do I cut my throat or slit my wrists?” Sometimes there are no easy routes for leaders, only ones fraught with nightmarish difficulties.
For Clegg, the Rennard affair is a no-win dilemma. The former Liberal Democrat chief executive’s suspension gives him more space, but the fundamental nightmare for him remains. If Clegg seeks to remove the whip from Rennard, he could still face an insurrection from senior Lib Dem peers who argue with passion that such a move would be unjust. In not appearing to punish Rennard decisively, Clegg risks the desertion of some senior female members of the party and a wider perception that he is not in control.
But he is not fully in control of his party. That is not his fault. The Liberal Democrats have an internal democracy that is wholly at odds with the presidential culture of British politics. Clegg is powerless to make his party in the Lords do as he wishes. He can use his position to put a case, but he has few levers to pull.
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If the Liberal Democrats continue to be a national party of government, they will need to change their constitution so that their leader has more control when the party’s reputation is at stake. But even if Clegg had such power his route to cathartic resolution in this case would be far from straightforward.
Clegg has used his limited platform to call on Rennard to apologise. I can understand why he makes this exhortation. But the demand for an apology is not as straightforward as it seems. In a competitive field, the greatest untrue cliché in British politics is that if a politician says “sorry” everything will be resolved.
I recall that Blair was asked to “apologise” for invading Iraq. But “I am sorry for needlessly sending British soldiers to their deaths” never struck me as a formula for his rehabilitation. More recently, Ed Miliband has been called upon to “apologise” for the last government’s alleged profligate spending. “I’m sorry we wrecked the economy” does not seem an obvious way of winning the next election.
Given his protestation of innocence, Rennard’s apology is not a straightforward matter either. In his long statement yesterday, he almost says sorry. But even if he did so more emphatically, such words would not be the end of the matter. They would trigger a thousand other questions. What did you do to cause the distress? Why do you think you caused the distress? On it would go, for Rennard and indeed Clegg, who would be under more pressure to end the peer’s political career entirely.
There are calls for the findings of the party’s internal inquiry to be published in full. There is no need. It found what we already knew. Most of the women who made the allegations have given public interviews. Evidently they are distressed and they explain in some detail what they claim happened.
The term “sexual harassment” is part of the problem with this saga. Like other ubiquitous terms – such as “the deficit” and “weapons of mass destruction” – the words convey a deceptive sense of clarity.
Rennard has occasionally been included in reports that also contain references to the likes of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall. In his case, the allegations are serious, but in a different, and much lower, league – a seemingly pathetic pursuit of women, and some limited unwanted physical contact, arguably arising from an outdated attitude that is changing fast, not least as a result of what has happened to him and to those facing far more serious allegations. In Rennard’s case his reputation is trashed, his political career is in ruins and he has been through hell. Whatever he did or did not do, he has been punished.
Clegg has already said that Rennard will play no part in his party’s 2015 election campaign. The former chief executive will never have the space to be a big political figure in his party again.
I have no idea how this more complicated story, the real one, will end, but I suspect that the fate of the Lib Dems at the next election will – rightly – be determined by other issues.
There’ll be no sense on welfare beween now and 2015
The usual, depressing pre-election debate on welfare is well underway, although the election is still miles away. And it is a debate based on a fantasy that a few lazy skivers and immigrants who cannot speak English are costing the country a fortune.
As far as it exists, such a culture of welfare passivity must be relentlessly addressed. Doing so is never easy. The determined skivers are hard to define and target. Every government makes an attempt. But even if the skivers are all compelled to work, it will not make much impact on the welfare budget. Big savings can only be made by cutting benefits for the elderly, who comprise more than half of it.
But because the elderly vote, they are told how deserving they are of such payouts (even the affluent elderly, who do not need the money). That leaves the working poor as a possible target, but as all the parties want to encourage or compel those on welfare to work, cutting the credits for the lowest paid makes no sense.
So for the next 18 months we are stuck in a fantasy world. The Conservatives spy votes in being “tough on welfare”. Labour is terrified of appearing “soft”. In truth, some savings will be made if the economy continues to grow and unemployment falls. But at some point a government will have to address universal benefits for the elderly or give up pretending that huge, conveniently unspecified, savings can be made from the welfare budget.