The Lord Rennard scandal marks the moment the Lib Dems discovered they are on the big stage

Clegg would not for a second be indifferent to precise allegations, but the response to this media frenzy does expose his party's inexperience

Share

There is more of a media frenzy over the allegations of sexual harrassment concerning the Liberal Democrats’ Lord Rennard than there was when Nick Clegg gave the go-ahead for the ill-conceived NHS reforms. Yet the Rennard saga is much less significant – and the messy reaction to it from the Lib Dem leadership is easily explained and to some extent excused.

The timing and context are pivotal. I do not mean the deeply suspicious way this issue reaches a pitch of excitement days before the Eastleigh by-election in which the Conservatives are vying for victory with the Lib Dems. Instead, I refer to the circumstances when, in 2008, Clegg first heard rumours about Rennard, soon after he became leader.

Clegg insists he knew of nothing precise then and that none of the alleged victims spoke to him directly. I believe him, partly because he would be crazy to lie knowing that cover- ups are always what land senior politicians in difficulty. In addition, it is possible to oppose some of his policies and recognise that Clegg is a decent man who would have acted if female colleagues and friends had alerted him to any serious detailed allegations.

Clegg’s view of “liberalism” makes him congenial at times to the children of Margaret Thatcher at the top of the Conservative Party, but someone with his socially progressive instincts would not for a second be indifferent to precise allegations. It seems that five years ago he knew of generalised rumours about incidents that had occurred years before that and thought little more about it.

The allegations against Rennard are not remotely in the same league as the shocking events of the Jimmy Savile scandal. Indeed, the term “sex pest” that has been applied to him is almost comical in its imprecision. But, in the post-Savile climate, I suspect it is more likely that a new leader of the Liberal Democrats, as Clegg was when he heard rumours about Rennard, would act more urgently. I also suspect that if the rumours had surfaced about an influential Tory or Labour figure, even before the Savile revelations, the alarm bells of those respective leaderships would have rung loudly from the beginning.

Every move made by senior Tory and Labour figures has been followed and assessed for decades. Like many institutions that have been exposed recently as deeply flawed – the BBC, the Catholic Church, newspapers and banks – the Liberal Democrats were, until the 2010 election, unused to such scrutiny. Indeed, in the early years when Clegg was leader he ached for any scrutiny at all. Having won a leadership contest, he assumed that a degree of national interest would follow. In the event, he might as well have taken a holiday up until the televised leaders’ debates in the 2010 campaign. Alarm bells ring with much less intensity, if they ring at all, when a leader and his party struggle to get noticed.

Political leaders need to be used to scrutiny in order to develop an instinct for potential crises. It is not scandalous for Clegg to have given limited thought to the little known Rennard in 2008. Similarly, Chris Huhne, a largely anonymous MEP at the time, would not have been alert to the possible political fallout when he asked his wife to take his penalty points for a speeding offence.  In a very different situation, I doubt if senior Lib Dems would have attempted to cover up Charles Kennedy’s drinking problems if they had been as heavily scrutinised as they are now.

The lack of experience in the eternal spotlight of national politics also explains the party’s inept response to the more detailed allegations against Rennard that surfaced on Channel 4 News last week. The initial accounts of what Clegg did and did not know have been revised several times. This is the amateur’s approach to political crises. Those who have been through several such events know that the key thing is to get all the information out there and ensure that all key media performers stick to a clear line. Cock-ups play their part, too. Clegg was away for a few days’ break at the end of last week and it is harder to control a running story from a distance. Again, I would be surprised if, after last week’s Channel 4 revelations, there was a coordinated attempt by senior Liberal Democrats to cover up and deceive. Clegg is not used to such crises, accompanied as they are by disproportionate media hysteria, and nor is his team. Inevitably, under the circumstances, they make mistakes.

A similar lack of experience partly explains the far more serious  – and indeed accurate – allegation that the Liberal Democrats gave the go-ahead for a dangerous overhaul of the NHS plus several other misjudged reforms. Unused to government, they also supported George Osborne’s economic policy – unveiled in too much of a hurry – and they accepted his framing of the argument that put such a focus on Britain’s triple-A rating.

These misjudgements are far less easily excused because they involve bleak consequences for many people. What Rennard is accused of is a serious issue for him and a serious issue for those who make the allegations. It has suddenly become the biggest of Clegg’s problems when it should be nothing of the sort.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Ventilation Cleaning Operative

£15600 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the battle of the election videos, and a robot sarcasm detector

John Rentoul
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping child abuse taking place right now

Mary Dejevsky
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower