If Lib Dems lose Eastleigh, their inept handling of Lord Rennard scandal will be blamed

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Nick Clegg regards his mission as taking the Liberal Democrats from being a party of opposition which can hoover up protest votes to one that is a serious partner in government.

The irony about the firestorm now engulfing Britain’s third party is that even Conservative cabinet ministers admit privately the Lib Dems have grown up since joining them in coalition. Mr Clegg’s party has sometimes been more disciplined than the Tories in swallowing the harsh medicine needed to reduce the deficit. After a difficult start in 2010, when the Deputy Prime Minister tried to do too much and was swamped, he has learnt to delegate and now has a much more professional operation.

Yet the leadership’s handling of the allegations that Lord Rennard, the former Lib Dem chief executive, sexually harassed female party activists, has looked more like amateur hour.

It is true that the claims, strongly contested by Lord Rennard, date back to the days when the Lib Dems did not expect to be in power and were rarely under the media microscope –much to their frustration at the time. But the party is judged by different standards now that it is in power, and the leadership seems to have been remarkably slow to realise this.

As one senior Lib Dem put it: “We might have got away with it five years ago when no one took us seriously as a party of government. It is as if we somehow forgot how much we have moved on since then.”

It is probably more cock-up than conspiracy of silence. “This is not Watergate but we did not anticipate the Watergate question – whether it was all covered up,” one Lib Dem insider said.

The original allegations may have been magnified by Tory-supporting newspapers, who often take out their frustration at David Cameron’s failure to win an overall majority in 2010 by kicking the Lib Dems. But that made it all the more important for Mr Clegg’s party to agree a line and stick to it. He unwittingly played into his critics’ hands by appearing to brand journalists looking into the claims as “self-appointed detectives”. Unwise, and he had to retreat.

A former senior Lib Dem official says: “I can hardly believe how badly it has been handled. Either Nick has been badly advised, or he hasn’t listened to advice. He is making things worse by changing his tune. He is looking irritated and cross.”

Allies of the  leader insist that he cannot be expected to have a photographic memory of every conversation he had five years ago. One said: “We were aware there was a problem. The women involved did not want it to become public. They just wanted it to stop. We made sure it did.”

However, Team Clegg seemed slow to grasp that the story could move easily from being one about Lord Rennard to one about his leadership. It did. Like Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg is not loved by everyone in his party. Speculation is rife at Westminster that the controversy is being fuelled by enemies within who may be stirring the pot.

Senior party figures have struggled to sing from the same hymn sheet. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, who is seen as a potential future leader, raised eyebrows by admitting the party had “screwed this up”. It was not the official line.

The timing of the revelations are dangerous for Mr Clegg. If the Lib Dems fail to win today’s Eastleigh by-election, his handling of the affair will be blamed, however  unfairly. The stakes are much higher than they were a week ago.