This newspaper has been more supportive than most of the Liberal Democrats and the compromises they have needed to make to be a party of government. The Independent backed Nick Clegg and Vince Cable when they proposed higher tuition fees paid for by student loans. We urged voters – who so often say that they want politicians to work together regardless of party – to show more understanding of the responsibilities of coalition partners.
The way in which the Deputy Prime Minister has handled complaints about the Liberal Democrats’ chief executive, however, has been lamentable. The allegations that Lord Rennard made unwanted advances towards women working for the party or looking for preferment in it were first made a decade ago. And Mr Clegg said that he became aware of “indirect and non-specific rumours” in 2008, the year after he became leader.
True, Lord Rennard resigned as chief executive in 2009, ostensibly for “family and health reasons”. But he continued to be active in the Liberal Democrat party, and continued to work with candidates, trading on his reputation as a genius of by-election victories that began with the Greenwich win in 1987. Mr Clegg was therefore forced to set up an inquiry, chaired by Alistair Webster QC, which concluded this week that the complaints against Lord Rennard were “credible” and that he had been guilty of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”.
To this, the Liberal Democrat leader’s response has been feeble. Mr Clegg has suggested that Lord Rennard should apologise and has said that he will not be “playing any role in my general election plans for the campaign in 2015”. But he has also said the report contains insufficient evidence either to expel Lord Rennard from the party or to remove him from its Federal Policy Executive.
It is at this point that the internal democracy and respect for procedure of which the party is proud turns into buck-passing and moral equivocation. Mr Clegg talks about Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, carrying out a review of disciplinary procedures, with the implication that Lord Rennard ought to be slung out but the rules do not allow it.
For a party that so often takes the high moral ground, this is gross hypocrisy. For a party with proportionally fewer women in Parliament than either of its larger rivals, it is a disaster.
What is most disappointing is that Mr Clegg said seven months ago in response to another, more general, report on “processes and culture within the Liberal Democrats”, that “over a 20-year period a series of mistakes were made which left a number of women feeling seriously let down and for that there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever”. He went on: “As leader of the Liberal Democrats I take responsibility for that. That’s why we’ve made a number of big changes in the party in recent years and why we must and will do more.”
Yet here he is again, promising that someone else will make some more changes. With leadership as weak as this, the Liberal Democrats deserve to regain the trust of no one, male or female, who is concerned with equal opportunities and mutual respect.