Lib Dem source: "hell will freeze over" before Chris Rennard resumes roles

A party source rejects the former chief executive's suggestion that he could resume his roles after being cleared of sexual harassing female party members.

There's been outrage among Lib Dem activists this afternoon at the announcement that an independent party review has cleared former party chief executive Chris Rennard of sexually harassing female members and that no further disciplinary action will be taken. QC Alastair Webster said Rennard "ought to reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused", and that "an apology would be appropriate, as would a commitment to change his behaviour in future". He added, however, that "it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable."

In the statement he issued in response, Rennard went as far as to claim that he looked forward to resuming his "roles within the Liberal Democrats", prompting even greater anger among activists. But when I put this suggestion to a Lib Dem source, I was told that "hell will freeze over" before Rennard returns to his previous posts.

I'm told that a statement from Nick Clegg will be issued at some point this afternoon. Here's what party president Tim Farron has said on the subject:

"The Liberal Democrats have taken the allegations made against Lord Rennard extremely seriously, which is why we appointed an eminent and experienced QC to examine the evidence. As a party we have no choice but to accept Alistair Webster QC's conclusions, but that does not mean I am content. Lord Rennard is not a current employee of the party and therefore the threshold that must be met for disciplinary action is higher than if this was a company HR procedure. In Alistair Webster QC's view, that threshold was unlikely to be met.

"While this process has not found to a criminal standard of proof that Lord Rennard acted with indecent intent, it is clear that he did not behave in the way that a chief executive should behave. Lord Rennard must reflect on his actions and apologise to the women involved.

"These allegations prompted the party to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The Liberal Democrats are, and must always be, a party where everyone is treated with respect."

Update: Here's Clegg's statement: "People in positions of authority should never subject anyone to behaviour which is offensive or inappropriate. It is as simple as that. I want everyone to be treated with respect in the Liberal Democrats. That is why it is right that Chris Rennard has been asked in the report to apologise, to reflect on his behaviour and why he won't be playing any role in my general election plans for the campaign in 2015."

Chris Rennard with Ming Campbell at the Liberal Democrat conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.