It's been a torrid weekend for the Liberal Democrats and for party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. The ongoing revelations concerning the activities of former party Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard has produced a torrent of damaging headlines with the strongest words reserved for Nick and the question as to whether his original denial of any knowledge of the allegations was truthful.
Let's start with a little personal perspective - I've stood in the same room as Chris Rennard on perhaps three occasions at Party Conference fringe meetings organised by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC). Many of those Councillors owe their seats to the campaigning advice and guidance put out by Chris and ALDC in the late 80s and early 90s. Even the Conservatives came to admire Chris Rennard's strategies for winning by-elections and victories such as Eastbourne, Newbury, Christchurch and Littleborough & Saddleworth as well as a string of Council wins were in no small part down to Chris.
Party Conferences are hotbeds (literally) of gossip, rumour and interaction. People, away from their homes and usual environments, aided by copious amounts of alcohol and outside some of the normal constraints and inhibitions of work and families, will behave completely differently. Sexual encounters happen, as I'm sure they do at Conservative and Labour Conferences with lots of flirting thrown in. Conferences are the main opportunity for those aspiring to progress in the Party which in essence means to become a Parliamentary candidate for a winnable seat, to establish relationships, contacts and otherwise network.
Unfortunately, as we've seen in other instances, they are also an opportunity for the powerful to prey on the powerless, the naive and the aspiring. The idea of advancement by sexual favour is nothing new but it is disappointing that it allegedly occurred in a party which prides itself on its progressive attitudes.
So it appears that for some women, the only method of progressing in terms of a prospective political career was to endure the advances of a powerful man and that is allegedly what happened.
The problem is allegations, it seems, are all we have. Chris Rennard has claimed, and I believe him to be factually correct, that he has never faced a formal complaint concerning his conduct. The key difference here is between an "allegation" and a "complaint". The former is informal, the latter a formal process. In instances such as those alleged, it often comes down to one person's word against another - there is no independent proof, it's not like an allegation of financial impropriety where an audit trail can be found and uncovered - an allegation of sexual misconduct, short of actual rape, is often a case of one person's version of events against another.
That such allegations should be properly investigated is one thing, proving a charge of sexual misconduct with the attendant consequences, is quite another. The system exists not only to protect the accuser but also the accused and there have been instances where a scorned or vindictive woman has used an allegation of sexual harrassment to destroy a man's career.
In the absence of independent evidence, it's highly unlikely a case can be proved. The woman's chances of a career are destroyed so what tends to happen is that the woman is persuaded not to move to a formal complaint on the basis that a senior person "will have a word" to ensure such behaviour is not repeated.
What appears to have happened is that, whatever words were had between Chris Rennard and senior Liberal Democrat leaders, nothing appears to have changed and other women have come forward alleging inappropriate behaviour by Chris Rennard. These alleged incidents took place over a period of turmoil within the leadership of the Party with Charles Kennedy's leadership followed by that of Sir Menzies Campbell and then finally by Nick Clegg. The only continuity during this period of turmoil was Chris Rennard as the Party's Chief Executive. This placed him in a position of considerable authority as he saw those who might have pursued any allegations moved on or moved aside and, as head of the Party's internal organisation, he was in a strong position to control or prevent any internal investigation.
What did become known in the Party was a "reputation" based on rumour and unsubstantiated allegation and this reached Nick Clegg's office in 2008, presumably soon after Nick became Party leader. However, it's not the same as the reputation that "someone likes a drink" or "someone likes a flutter". In the case of the former, they are betrayed by their behaviour and in the case of the latter, arguably the same. Chris Rennard was, and certainly appeared to most, able to act professionally and competently in everyday business and political activities.
Nonetheless, what emerges from this as the most disturbing aspect is less what Nick Clegg knew and didn't know and what he should or shouldn't have done about it because that is, as the Mail has demonstrated, just an opportunity for cheap political point-scoring and in any case once Chris Rennard had stood down from the post of Chief Executive in 2009, there was little that could be done.
No, the problem seems to me to be that when the women involved sought guidance from senior Party figures and otherwise expressed their concerns over Chris Rennard's behaviour, these concerns were poorly addressed and indeed swept under the carpet. One of the problems, I think, is that many of the 1997-2005 intake of Liberal Democrat MPs owed their seats to Chris Rennard and his tactics. In Sutton, where I lived in the 1990s, the Party used ALDC tactics to build a formidable power base locally which enabled Paul Burstow and Tom Brake not only to win their seats from the Conservatives in 1997 but to hold them ever since as well as keeping an iron grip on the Council. For many of the MPs, Rennard was almost an elections guru as well as a friend and ally and it must have been hard to hear of him in such unflattering terms.
None of which is, of course, an excuse or mitigation or justification. Chris Rennard was able, allegedly, to abuse his position of authority in the Party and to harrass women safe in the knowledge, it seems, that a) none of the women would wish to jeopardise their political careers by speaking out publicly and b) those MPs and others in the Party who could have done something about it were friends or saw him as a political mentor and were reluctant to challenge him on that basis.
At last, it seems that current Chief Executive, Tim Gordon, and Party President Tim Farron, both of whom emerge from this fiasco with a scintilla of credit, are getting to grips with the problem and it seems likely that, as an organisation, the Liberal Democrats will develop and adopt the same rigorous internal processes, procedures and cultures for countering sexual harrassment (as well as other forms of harrassment such as bullying) as other organisations.
We can, it seems, rely on Tory partisans such as Ben Brogan to carry on having a good prod and poke at the self-inflicted wounds in a desperate attempt to undermine the Liberal Democrat chances at Eastleigh though last night's Populus poll indicated Mike Thornton still held a narrow lead over the Conservatives.
As Mike Smithson adroitly observes this morning, the good burghers of Eastleigh will get their lives back on Friday morning. As to whether the political significance of the result will resonate in the months ahead, that remains to be seen. This morning's Independent poll has been couched in terms of a bad Liberal Democrat rating but what it really shows is Labour on course for a 1997-style majority.
Sometimes, the superficial coverage hides the bigger story. If, from the Rennard debacle, the Liberal Democrat Party becomes a more women-friendly party, then in twenty years time, it may be seen as a far more decisive and important event than the Eastleigh by-election or Britain losing its triple A rating or even the Italian election.