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The Lib Dems can't afford to look this ridiculous

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

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

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.