The Lib Dems can't afford to look this ridiculous

The Rennard shambles risks undermining the graduation into a serious party of government.

Obviously it is bad for the Liberal Democrats. But how bad? The handling of sexual harassment allegations against Chris Rennard has been disorderly from the beginning of the saga. Decoding exactly when senior figures knew there was a problem and unpicking what they did – or failed to do – about it hasn’t been easy. When the story first emerged last year there was a palpable tension at the top between the desperate hope that such a substantial figure in the party machine might turn out not to be a serial sleazebag and the awkward realisation that, to some extent, he was.

The disciplinary process has now magnified that tension into an institutional crisis. The party’s inquiry found, in summary, that Rennard was not guilty of anything that a court might deem criminal but was responsible for something unspecified warranting an apology. For failing to supply that apology, Rennard is now judged to have brought the party into disrepute and has been suspended. They couldn’t take action over the fire so they’re doing him for the smoke. Now he is reported to be considering suing.

When the scandal broke last February I wrote this blog, concluding that the episode damaged the Lib Dems by making them look ridiculous when their whole strategic offer was predicated on having become a party of mature professionals. The same applies today. Lack of principle and weakness of will are two of the stains that Lib Dem strategists have toiled hardest to scrub from the tarnished brand of their party and, crucially, their leader. Nick Clegg badly needed the Rennard case to be resolved in a way that left him looking resolute, liberal and democratic. So far it isn’t playing out that way.

It is worth remembering that the original allegations about Lord Rennard and Clegg’s handling of them were fashioned by some newspapers into an aggressive campaign against the party with an undisguised agenda to sabotage their chance in the Eastleigh by-election. Yet the Lib Dems held the seat. A Force 10 tabloid gale didn’t blow them off course. It is quite possible that this time too, the impact outside Westminster will be limited. Not many people beyond SW1 will have heard of Chris Rennard or care who he is.

I suspect the political damage will be subtle and insidious rather than immediately catastrophic. The whole episode is demoralising for activists who have already suffered countless doorstep indignities and electoral beatings as a result of coalition, without the compensating glamour of ministerial offices. (As George points out, it is also a reminder of how monolithically male the Lib Dem parliamentary cohort is, which isn’t a great look for a party wanting to sell itself as guarantors of equality and opportunity.) Then there is that lingering sense that the Lib Dems have been exposed as a bunch of amateurs when their proposed election campaign pitches them as the go-to guys for steady-handed centrist government. It is also a reminder of how small the party is – Rennard loomed large, seems to have known everyone and was, by all accounts, irreplaceable – and how few friends the Lib Dems have in the media.

In coalition the Lib Dems have amplified their power by ramping up conflict with the Tories. The Conservatives have played along by complaining that the junior partner has too much influence. Clegg’s team has recently begun celebrating success in rebutting the idea that they are mere hostages in a Cameron administration. The "poodle" metaphor is losing its currency (despite efforts by Labour to keep trading on it).

The Lib Dem leader has survived longer than many commentators and MPs expected. If opinion polls continue to show stalemate between Cameron and Ed Miliband, he stands a decent chance of negotiating his way back into government in another coalition. In recognition of that resilience, the Westminster media pack had recently started showing him and his party some grudging respect. The Rennard shambles has now provided an outlet for the kind of Clegg-bashing that comes more naturally to Fleet Street.

It is notable also that the Lib Dems have taken alternate rounds of abuse from different directions in recent years – from the left as collaborators in Tory austerity; from the right as obstacles to more carnivorous cuts – but are not often pilloried simultaneously from both sides. They hope in a general election campaign to enjoy ad hoc tactical alliances with one side against the other. Clegg could gang up with Miliband to denounce Tory hard-heartedness and with Cameron to deride Labour profligacy. But it is also possible, of course, that the two main parties collude in presenting the Lib Dems as a jumped-up gaggle of self-serving chancers who were lucky enough to blag their way into power for one term and now really ought to be consigned to obscurity. In that respect, the Rennard case is a warning to the Lib Dems. If they want to campaign as a serious party of government they can’t afford these episodes of sustained ridicule. 

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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MPs Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock lay out a 6-point plan for Brexit:

Time for Theresa May to lay out her priorities and explain exactly what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.

Angela Merkel has called on Theresa May to “take her time” and “take a moment to identify Britain’s interests” before invoking Article 50. We know that is code for the “clock is ticking” and also that we hardly have any idea what the Prime Minister means by “Brexit means Brexit.”

We have no time to lose to seek to safeguard what is best in from our membership of the European Union. We also need to face some uncomfortable truths.

Yes, as remain campaigners we were incredibly disappointed by the result. However we also recognise the need to move forward with the strongest possible team to negotiate the best deal for Britain and maintain positive relationships with our nearest neighbours and allies. 
 
The first step will be to define what is meant by 'the best possible deal'. This needs to be a settlement that balances the economic imperative of access to the single market and access to skills with the political imperative to respond to the level of public opinion to reduce immigration from the EU. A significant proportion of people who voted Leave on 23 June did so due to concerns about immigration. We must now acknowledge the need to review and reform. 

We know that the single market is founded upon the so-called "four freedoms", namely the free movement of goods, capital, services and people & labour. As things stand, membership of the single market is on an all-or-nothing basis. 

We believe a focus for negotiations should be reforms to how the how the single market works. This should address how the movement of people and labour across the EU can exist alongside options for greater controls on immigration for EU states. 

We believe that there is an appetite for such reforms amongst a number of EU governments, and that it is essential for keeping public confidence in how well the EU is working.

So what should Britain’s priorities be? There are six vital principles that the three Cabinet Brexit Ministers should support now:

1. The UK should remain in the single market, to the greatest possible extent.

This is essential for our future prosperity as a country. A large proportion of the £17 billion of foreign direct investment that comes into the UK every year is linked to our tariff-free access to a market of 500 million consumers. 

Rather than seeking to strike a "package deal" across all four freedoms, we should instead sequence our approach, starting with an EU-wide review of the freedom of movement of people and labour. This review should explore whether the current system provides the right balance between consistency and flexibility for member states. Indeed, for the UK this should also address the issue of better registration of EU nationals in line with other nations and enforcement of existing rules. 

If we can secure a new EU-wide system for the movement of people and labour, we should then seek to retain full access to the free movement of goods, capital and services. This is not just in our interests, but in the interests of the EU. For other nation states to play hardball with Britain after we have grappled first with the complexity of the immigration debate would be to ignore rather than act early to address an issue that could eventually lead to the end of the EU as we know it.

2. In order to retain access to the single market we believe that it will be necessary to make a contribution to the EU budget.

Norway, not an EU member but with a high degree of access to the single market, makes approximately the same per capita contribution to the EU budget as the UK currently does. We must be realistic in our approach to this issue, and we insist that those who campaigned for Leave must now level with the British people. They must accept that if the British government wishes to retain access to the single market then it must make a contribution to the EU budget.

3. The UK should establish an immigration policy which is seen as fair, demonstrates that we remain a country that is open for business, and at the same time preventing unscrupulous firms from undercutting British workers by importing cheap foreign labour.  

We also need urgent confirmation that EU nationals who were settled here before the referendum as a minimum are guaranteed the right to remain, and that the same reassurance is urgently sought for Britons living in mainland Europe. The status of foreign students from the EU at our universities must be also be clarified and a strong message sent that they are welcomed and valued. 

4. The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity, while ensuring that the high standards of transparency and accountability agreed at an EU level are adhered to, alongside tough new rules against tax evasion and avoidance. In addition, our relationship with the European Investment Bank should continue. Industry should have the confidence that it is business as usual.

5. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s employment legislation. People were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. We need to make sure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe.

6. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s environmental legislation.

As with workers’ rights, we were promised that this too would be protected post-Brexit.  We must make sure we do not have weaker legislation on protecting the environment and combatting climate change. We must not become the weak link in Europe.

Finally, it is vital that the voice of Parliament and is heard, loud and clear. In a letter to the Prime Minister we called for new joint structures – a Special Parliamentary Committee - involving both Houses to be set up by October alongside the establishment of the new Brexit unit. There must be a clear role for opposition parties. It will be equally important to ensure that both Remain and Leave voices are represented and with clearly agreed advisory and scrutiny roles for parliament. Representation should be in the public domain, as with Select Committees.

However, it is also clear there will be a need for confidentiality, particularly when sensitive negotiating positions are being examined by the committee. 

We call for the establishment of a special vehicle – a Conference or National Convention to facilitate broader engagement of Parliament with MEPs, business organisations, the TUC, universities, elected Mayors, local government and devolved administrations. 

The UK’s exit from the EU has dominated the political and economic landscape since 23 June, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. It is essential that we enter into these negotiations with a clear plan. There can be no cutting of corners, and no half-baked proposals masquerading as "good old British pragmatism". 

The stakes are far too high for that.