The Deputy Prime Minister has been dragged into the sex scandal surrounding a top Liberal Democrat accused of molesting women.
Amid mounting claims of a cover-up, it emerged Nick Clegg’s private office was made aware of the claims as long as five years ago.Aides to the Lib Dem leader refused to say how much he knew about the allegations that former party chief Chris Rennard had groped a string of female activists. But last night, evidence was growing that senior party officials ran an organised campaign to silence the women and shut down an internal investigation.The Daily Mail has learned one female activist was sacked from the party and forced to sign a gagging order after trying to blow the whistle on Lord Rennard.
Another woman, who claims that she was sexually harassed by Lord Rennard, described to the Mail how the party offered a bizarre form of ‘restorative justice’ in which she could confront him in private about the impact of his actions.She refused and, after threatening to go the Press, was told she had no longer had a future in the party.A third woman, who claims she was sexually assaulted at his London home, revealed the ‘Kafkaesque’ nightmare she experienced when she tried to report the incident to senior Lib Dems.Mr Clegg, who claims not to have known about these specific cases, has now been forced to order an internal inquiry into the sexual harassment and groping claims.
In a statement yesterday Lord Rennard said he would ‘temporarily stand aside’ from his party roles while the investigation is carried out in order to ‘avoid any embarrassment to the party’.At least ten women have now made complaints about the behaviour of Lord Rennard, who denies wrongdoing. The women said their claims had not been taken seriously by the party leadership.A prominent Lib Dem last night likened the party’s handling of the allegations to the way the BBC dealt with the Jimmy Savile scandal.Stephen Tall, co-editor of grassroots website Lib Dem Voice, said: ‘There is a gulf both in the severity and scale of the allegations. But there is also a potentially worrying similarity – that just as the BBC turned a blind eye to the alleged offences one of its stars, so too did the Lib Dems.
‘The party has to acknowledge the seriousness not only of the allegations themselves, but also the alleged cover-up.’Lord Rennard became one of the most powerful figures in the Liberal Democrats after masterminding a string of by-election successes over the past two decades. His accusers claim he abused his power to try to take advantage of them.Mr Clegg, who is on holiday in Spain, has made no public comment on the claims, although a spokesman said he was ‘very concerned’ about the developments.
A senior aide yesterday said Mr Clegg had not known about the specific claims raised on Thursday night by a Channel 4 News investigation, but would not comment on whether he knew about wider allegations that Lord Rennard was a sex pest.But the Daily Mail can reveal the Lib Dem party leader’s office asked a senior MP to carry out a probe into the accusations as far back as 2008, the year after Mr Clegg became party leader.Mr Clegg’s deputy chief-of-staff Alison Suttie is said to have asked MP Jo Swinson to speak to workers about Lord Rennard’s behaviour under her then role as the party’s spokesman for women and equality. Former chief whip Paul Burstow is also said to have been informed about the claims.
A former Lib Dem party official last night said: ‘Clegg must have known what was going on as the investigation was being run by his own office. Alison Suttie was known as his gatekeeper and briefed him on all events within the party daily. Everyone was talking about it, and it was common knowledge.’Labour MP Ian Mearns said: ‘Nick Clegg and all the senior party figures need to tell us what they knew and when they knew it.’Lib Dem president Tim Farron yesterday started an internal investigation into how the party deals with sexual harassment.In a statement, Lord Rennard said he was ‘deeply shocked by and strongly disputes the allegations made against him’.
A Lib Dem spokesman said: ‘We will not tolerate harassment in our party.’Three women have told how they felt ‘shamed and humiliated’ after allegedly being sexually harassed by former Liberal Democrat chief executive Lord Rennard.One described how he put his hands where they had ‘no business being’ and another branded him ‘repugnant’ for allegedly forcing his hand up her dress as they posed for a photo together.Alison Smith, then a party activist but now an Oxford University politics lecturer, told how she and a fellow female Lib Dem member were invited back to Lord Rennard’s house after having dinner with him in central London six years ago.She also revealed the ‘Kafkaesque’ nightmare she experienced when trying to report the incident to Lib Dem high command.
Describing the alleged sexual impropriety Miss Smith said: ‘At first everything seemed fine. He was on one sofa and we were on another sofa.‘And then he just very suddenly got up and plonked himself between us and started moving his hands down our backs and places where they had absolutely no business being. It was both of us at the same time.‘I straight away stood up and said: “No, that’s not acceptable. I’m going home”.’
Miss Smith claimed he tried to tell her there were no taxis, but said she got ‘very, very, very cross’ and insisted on leaving. ‘He looked surprised, he looked shocked and he opened the door and we got a taxi home.’ But Miss Smith said that when she tried to report him she faced numerous obstacles.She explained: ‘You have to remember that Chris Rennard was chief executive and director of campaigns. The guy who is the problem is at the top of the tree.’Miss Smith reported the incident to Paul Burstow, then the party’s chief whip. She said he sounded concerned and promised to get back in touch, but never did.
She later went to Jo Swinson, the party’s spokesman for women and equality, and the current minister for women, who agreed to investigate and uncovered ‘a very serious pattern of behaviour’.But Miss Smith said she was told it could not be taken forward because nobody wanted to make a formal complaint.‘It very quickly became quite Kafkaesque. They were saying, “No one wants to make a formal complaint”, and I was saying, “I’ll make a formal complaint”, and they were saying, “Well, that’s a shame because no one wants to make a formal complaint”.’
She accused the Lib Dems of cowardice in their response to the allegations, adding: ‘If a political party can’t face up to these problems in their own internal affairs how can they be expected to run the country?’Another alleged victim said Lord Rennard repeatedly touched her knee then invited her to his hotel room. Bridget Harris, former special adviser to Nick Clegg, said her alleged ordeal happened at a conference in Swansea in 2003, soon after she had secured a senior political role in the Welsh parliament.
She said: ‘This was my first big job, I was newly married, I wasn’t drinking that night, I was on my best behaviour, I was in a professional mode.‘As we carried on talking he was touching my legs and touching my knees. He did it two or three times. The first time I thought was an accident and I crossed my legs . . . The third time I had to physically move away from him.‘At that point I mentally started my countdown about how I was going to stop talking and get away from him. Clearly not noticing the signals of me moving away from him, he then suggested that we take our coffees upstairs to his room.
‘It made me feel embarrassed and upset and disappointed. The next day I reported it to my line managers because I knew it was wrong.’A third woman, who did not wish to be named, told how as a 21-year-old Lib Dem candidate she was talking with Lord Rennard at an event when a friend suggested they all posed for a photo.She said: ‘Chris [Lord Rennard] was stood next to me, he shoved his hand down the back of my dress. I felt really humiliated, and very undermined and very shameful.’
She said his advances came out of nowhere but she felt unable to report him because of his position.She said: ‘Chris was all powerful in the party, probably more powerful than the party leader. Chris decided who got money and who got support, and when you are a candidate money is votes. The story here is about a man who abused his position and his approaches to women were repugnant.’An email sent in October 2008 by a former Lib Dem campaigns officer to women in the party also gave a stark warning of the alleged harassment by Lord Rennard. It said: ‘There has been a long-standing problem with a number of women where the abuse of Chris’s [Lord Rennard’s] position was clearly inappropriate.
‘I’ve discussed this today with Jo Swinson, who was aware of a number of cases . . . Jo tells me that a recent conversation has been had by somebody senior in the party with Chris, and he has been informed that the behaviour has to stop.’Lord Rennard’s lawyers insisted he had ‘always strived to conduct himself responsibly and appropriately at all times’ and was unaware of any complaint about his conduct ever being made against him.They said: ‘In the case of Ali Smith, he denies behaving improperly and confirms he has worked with Bridget Harris since 2003 and is unaware of her having grounds for complaint.
‘In addition, Lord Rennard describes as completely untrue any suggestion that he resigned as chief executive as a result of allegations about inappropriate behaviour.’He has been called the ‘Mystic Meg’ of voting prediction and the by-election wizard. Inevitably, given his surname and wily stratagems, the nickname most often applied was ‘The Fox.’It is almost impossible to overstate the part played by campaign supremo Lord Rennard in the modern revival of the Liberal Democrats.
No one did more to take the battle to the two main parties: though large and owlish in appearance, he was the ‘legend’ whose tactical nous and street-fighting approach helped win an unlikely series of by-election victories and revive the Lib Dem presence in both Parliament and council chambers.But now it is suggested that this formidable political operator may have had a very human failing. The party he served is mired in allegations that its senior hierarchy may have been prepared to overlook or even cover-up the sexual transgressions of their star psephologist, although Rennard denies any wrongdoing.
Liverpudlian Christopher Rennard is one of those rare creatures, a professional Liberal Democrat. An activist at 12 and full-time party worker once he left education, his allegiance was rooted in childhood adversity.His dentist father died when Rennard was three. Local Liberals helped his disabled mother win a widow’s pension. When she too died, the teenage orphan devoted his life to the party.After student activism at Liverpool University, Rennard helped the Liberal revival in the city which in five years saw the party go from having only one seat on the council to seizing control.His adoption of American-style tactics – which cut across the grain of the Liberals’ traditional sandals-and-muesli approach and beardie image – saw him mastermind David Alton’s shock by-election victory in Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979.
He took his success to the national stage – he was one of the key figures behind the infamous ‘dirty tricks’ campaign that the Liberals fought to win Bermondsey from Labour in a by-election in 1983.Labour candidate Peter Tatchell was gay and Liberal activists were seen wearing ‘I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell’ badges An anonymous leaflet was circulated featuring images of the Queen and Tatchell asking which ‘queen’ people would vote for.
Steve Radford, a Liverpool Liberal councillor for more than 30 years, says the leaflet was devised in Liverpool. He saw a draft on the kitchen table in the house where Rennard was a tenant. These were dark arts indeed, and wildly successful. The Liberal candidate Simon Hughes – himself ‘outed’ as gay some 20 years later – won with the biggest swing in election history, 44.2 per cent. That same year Rennard met his future wife Ann. She was the Liberal agent in a neighbouring Merseyside constituency. – DailyMail