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Monday, January 20, 2014 

Much as I'd like to just laugh...

Is there anything quite as hilarious as a political party tearing itself apart?  Well, obviously, almost everything is funnier than a party being plunged into crisis over what amounts to in practice a refusal to apologise, even when the party is the Liberal Democrats, but bear with me here.  It's more to do with how the Lib Dems have so often portrayed themselves as being holier than thou, having such deep integrity, being above the petty squabbling which the Tories and Labour have so often descended into.  In actuality the party can be and has been brutal, not least in the way it dispensed with the services of Ming Campbell in double quick time, while if anything it's long been a master of the political dark arts, smearing and engaging in ad hominem attacks on opponents when it's suited them.

It also takes quite something to relegate the small matter of a UKIP councillor informing the world that the recent floods are God's punishment for the government daring to legislate for gay marriage to being a lesser story.  Nigel Farage, bless him, has pledged to smoke out the "extremist, nasty or barmy" from his party ahead of the all important European elections, raising the question of when he intends to resign, especially considering his intervention today to claim that sexism no longer exists in the City.

The Liberal Democrats, it's fair to say, have a problem with women.  Not necessarily on the policy front, and I fully respect their decision not to introduce all-women shortlists in an attempt to increase the party's share of women MPs, but clearly something hasn't been right for some time.  All the main parties have their dinosaur tendency, especially among those elevated to the Lords, and it seems due to a mixture of old fashioned views on what constitutes unacceptable behaviour as well as loyalty towards Lord Rennard that they weren't exactly fully enamoured with the verdict of Alistair Webster QC, who while deciding that the evidence and allegations made against Rennard were "broadly credible", also felt they couldn't be established beyond reasonable doubt.  His suggestion was that Rennard should make a formal apology.

Rennard however has refused to apologise, believing that if he were to do so it would amount to an admission of guilt and leave him liable to pay compensation if sued.  He also continues to maintain his innocence, and so an apology would be fairly meaningless in any case.  The Lib Dems have duly reacted by suspending Rennard again, although it remains to be seen exactly what sanctions can be brought against a peer who is refusing to apologise, other than continuing to withhold the whip.  Rennard in response has released a statement saying he's considering legal action against the party, ably assisted as he has been throughout by Lord Carlile, the former "independent" reviewer of terrorism legislation, the same Lord Carlile who never saw a control order he thought wasn't justified, and pretty much complained only during his time in the role of the overuse of section 44 of the Terrorism Act.  It's also the same Carlile who took to the Mail on Sunday yesterday to complain that Rennard had been subject to treatment "that Thomas Cromwell would have hesitated from using on behalf of Henry VIII".  Quite apart from how the Mail and its sister paper were in the vanguard, leading the charge against Rennard, it's odd that someone so outraged by an injustice done to a friend never expressed anything even approaching such passion when it came to the "mistakes" of the state.

This isn't to say there hasn't been skulduggery on the part of all sides.  Despite the insistence of Channel 4's Cathy Newman, it always felt suspect that the allegations against Rennard were brought out into the open so close to the Eastleigh by-election when they had been known about for some time, and the email chain which fell into the hands of the Rennard camp more than suggests it was timed for maximum damage to the party.  This said, equally clearly those who complained about Rennard believed that the only way they would be taken seriously was to go all out, and they were fully entitled to do so.  We don't know the exact details of the allegations, not least because it doesn't seem as though Rennard himself has been given a copy of Webster's report, but they amount to more than Rennard just putting his hand on the women's knees.  The Telegraph, having heard of the allegations in 2010, noted that they included accusations of groping, and most seriously, two prospective parliamentary candidates who after a dinner at Rennard's home were told to "go upstairs", and were only allowed to leave when one threatened to call the police.

Rennard could of course be telling the truth, but when you consider the allegations against him were so widely known at Westminster before they became public knowledge, and it was believed his resignation in 2009 from his role as party chief executive was not entirely about his health it becomes less and less likely.  The opaque nature of the investigations also hasn't helped, making it unclear exactly what he had been accused of.  Whatever it was he thought he was doing, some came to see his approach as being to promote those who played along, while those who didn't found their careers floundered.  Whether accurate or not, he clearly has plenty to apologise for, and his mealy-mouthed and self-pitying statement today has exacerbated the situation rather than brought it nearer to a conclusion.

Much as we could enjoy the schadenfreude and leave it at that, it reflects badly on politics as a whole.  One suspects Rennard abused his position precisely because he felt he was indispensable, a situation which isn't analogous to the other main parties, although it has been true of the SWP, which has been going through its own agonies over far more serious allegations.  The sooner the party gets a grip, difficult due to its structure and how Rennard is no longer an employee, the better.

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