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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.