Editorial: Just when the Lib Dems looked set for victory...

 

Share

The Eastleigh by-election was already on a knife-edge. After yesterday's shock admission from Nick Clegg that he had, in fact, known his party's former chief executive faced accusations of behaving inappropriately towards female activists, Eastleigh could even be lost – and more than a single parliamentary seat will go with it.

The most immediate question, of course, is why the allegations against Lord Rennard – which were sufficiently widespread to earn him the nickname "the human octopus" – were not followed up in the first place. Mr Clegg may protest that he was aware only of "general concerns" and that, without an official complaint, he could make no official move.

But such sophistry is wholly inadequate. It is incumbent upon the head of any organisation to follow up suggestions of impropriety among their staff, however nebulous. Even more so on so tricky a matter as sexual harassment. Indeed, one can only wonder whether Mr Clegg would have responded with such delicacy had the tittle-tattle suggested an official with their hand in the till.

Nor do the Liberal Democrats' problems end there. Until yesterday, Mr Clegg's office had repeatedly denied the party had any knowledge of the allegations. Indeed, Vince Cable re-stated his leader's ignorance just hours before the admission finally came. At best, such inconsistency smacks of a worrying degree of incompetence among Mr Clegg's staff. The Liberal Democrat leader's more hostile opponents will no doubt cry outright mendacity.

Where, then, does all this leave Eastleigh? It is difficult to overstate the significance of Thursday's by-election. Never mind that the southern Hamp-shire electorate will vote, to a large extent, on such close-to-home issues as plans for a gravel pit. The contest is still a hard-fought scrap between the Coalition partners with far-reaching implications for Britain's political landscape, up to the 2015 election and beyond.

And after an initial wobble – given that the vote was triggered by Chris Huhne admitting that he passed speeding points to his then-wife – the Liberal Democrats had seemed to be on course to win. Initial high hopes for the Tory challenger were faltering. Despite the roll call of party luminaries who descended on Eastleigh to help with the canvassing, Maria Hutchings's much-touted "plain-speaking" looked, on the stump, more like unruliness. By the weekend, the Conservatives' central concern was no longer winning, but rather avoiding being beaten into third place by Ukip.

Now, however, all is uncertain once more. The furore over Lord Rennard, and Mr Clegg's involvement (or lack of it), cannot but overshadow the last three days of campaigning. And the furore over a senior Liberal Democrat behaving badly, and another apparently looking the other way, is particularly damaging so soon after the revelations of Mr Huhne's decade of deceit over his speeding fraud.

David Cameron will be rubbing his hands at the whiff of a chance he could steal Eastleigh and buy some time with his sceptical backbenchers. Meanwhile, the risk to the Liberal Democrats is sky-rocketing. Defeat would leave Mr Clegg's leadership hanging in the balance, dire forecasts of electoral meltdown in 2015 difficult to gainsay, and the prospects of another hung parliament rapidly receding. The outcome is far from certain. Two decades-worth of local campaigning may still win out. But the ballyhoo over Lord Rennard has made an already fraught task that much harder.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent