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18 November 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:24pm

Lib Dems dodge mutually assured destruction as Lord Rennard resigns from the federal executive

After the party's grassroots called successfully for a special conference to oust him from the federal executive, Chris Rennard stood down.

By Stephen Tall

The Lib Dems have stepped back from the brink. Until Tuesday, and while the rest of the world’s attention was focused on Paris, it appeared the party, not content with being half-buried by the electorate in May, was intent on finishing the job off itself. “When you’re in a hole, stop digging” is the usual advice; instead, Lib Dems have been busily arming themselves with spades.

What was the cause of this internal strife? Nothing to do with policy: no rows over Trident or the economy or anti-terror legislation. Instead, it was the slow-burn fall-out from the Lord Rennard saga

Last week, the self-governing group of Lib Dem peers voted by a 2:1 majority to offer its seat on the party’s ruling Federal Executive (FE) to its former chief executive and campaigning guru.

It was Rennard who was at the centre of allegations of sexual impropriety that exploded into the headlines almost three years ago, following the decision of four long-standing female Lib Dems  including a former special adviser to Nick Clegg  to go public with their complaints against him on Channel 4 News. The party found itself engulfed in crisis, paralysed by its own due process.

A QC’s investigation concluded that, “the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible”. However, as the party’s rules at the time required that disciplinary charges could only be brought against a member if allegations could be proven beyond reasonable doubt – a high threshold he felt could not be met – it was recommended no further action be taken.

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With the peer still protesting his innocence, an independent report by businesswoman Helena Morrissey acknowledged this unsatisfactory “not proven” limbo satisfied no one, but that “there is no justification for [the party] remaining ambivalent towards Lord Rennard – he should be just as welcome a participant or guest at party events as any other”.

Except, of course, he isn’t. At least not to those many friends and sympathisers of the women, all of whom stand by their accusations and have since resigned from the party. And although Tim Farron had publicly stated when running for the leadership “I have no intention of appointing him to any role”, he was unable to stop Lib Dem peers, who fiercely protect their independence, from restoring Rennard to a position of power. 

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It was a deeply provocative choice, highlighting not just their lack of accountability (to the party, let alone the public) but also their political naivety. Ill-judged public interventions by Rennard’s colleagues – Lord (Tony) Greaves hand-waved the allegations away as “relatively minor” – further inflamed matters. 

A group of Lib Dem activists set up to ensure harassment has no place in the party – whose name “Rock the Boat” is a declaration of intent to ensure members don’t feel guilt-tripped into silence to spare the party’s blushes – successfully gathered the required number of signatures over the weekend to trigger a special conference. This – only the second in the party’s history (the first rubber-stamped the coalition) – would have voted on whether to abolish the Lord’s representation on the FE.

And so the party seemed set on a path of mutually assured destruction. Farron and party president Sal Brinton (one of Rennard’s colleagues in the Lords) had been trying desperately behind the scenes to defuse the situation. In the end, the Lib Dem leader issued Rennard with an ultimatum: stand down or I’ll publicly call on you to resign. When an extended Sunday night deadline passed, Farron made good on his threat.

Rennard blinked: within an hour, he’d announced his decision to resign from the FE, noting that a special conference would “make the party look absurd, cost a great deal of money that is needed for campaigning, and do nothing to heal the divisions”.

A crisis averted, then, with Farron’s leadership strengthened (albeit at the cost of further damaging his already strained relations with many of the party’s peers), as well as a sharp reminder that the Lib Dem grassroots don’t care to be trampled on.

Yet few expect this to be the end of the affair. The Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.