Even victory at the Eastleigh by-election will not put an end to the Liberal Democrat leader’s troubles.
Tomorrow the voters of Eastleigh will choose their new MP in a by-election billed as the most important for 30 years. It is nothing of the kind. Eastleigh has instead become a sideshow featuring politics at its most dysfunctional. Voters who want to talk about schools and planning and the quaint notion of trust have been cast as extras in a sub-James Bond psychodrama.
What with the jail term that may await Chris Huhne, the departed MP, and the scandal involving Lord Rennard, the former Liberal Democrat chief executive, the people of Eastleigh can garner racier plot lines at the hustings than at their local cinema, where A Good Day To Die Hard is showing. Even if the Lib Dem candidate survives the current shoot-out, his party leader may catch the bullet.
Eastleigh, billed as a test of the Coalition partners, could yet supply a personal requiem for Nick Clegg, whose future now hangs in the balance. Lib Dem MPs increasingly worried by his handling of the sexual harassment allegations concerning Lord Rennard believe that Mr Clegg’s response to the crisis has been so inept as to put his leadership in doubt.
Others think Mr Clegg unlucky. As one leading party figure says: “If you search the closets of the other parties, you’re going to find worse scandals than this.” That may well be true. If the charges against Lord Rennard turn out, despite his denials, to be substantiated, then he will not be the first portly groper to mistake power for allure.
Had he not stepped down as chief executive quietly some time ago on health grounds, then Eastleigh would have been a cinch for someone who, in the words of one party stalwart, “won by-elections from nowhere”. Plenty of male Lib Dems still attest to the congenial charm of a man with “a Midas touch”, whereas the Lib Dem women now claiming molestation recall his alleged “octopus” hands.
The Lib Dems’ sanctimony over women is perfectly illustrated by the party’s “gender balance weekends”, whose very name is likely to propel the most ardent feminist towards a Mary Berry soufflé masterclass. Rumours that Lord Rennard planned to help out with gender balancing apparently prompted whistle-blowers to break their long silence and so convulse a party that, in the words of a senior male Lib Dem, is “terribly, terribly male-dominated”.
Any promotion demands such slog and sacrifice that women aspirants tend either to be veterans or very young. Mothers with small children who thrive in high-flying Labour and Tory ranks fall by the wayside in a party that champions equal rights but regards as illiberal the means to secure that goal. The upshot is a habitat which any steamy-breathed old lecher might dream of annexing as his personal Stringfellows.
Mr Clegg, used to juggling child care and careers, might have noticed how few Lib Dem women live similar lives, except that observation is not his strongest suit. Hence, when “non-specific concerns” over Lord Rennard’s conduct reached him, he failed to ask what those might be. That omission, curious in any party leader, was doubly remiss, given that Lord Rennard had confirmed him in that post after declining to count late postal votes which would, it is said, have handed victory to Chris Huhne.
Wilful ignorance, though offering no proof of culpability in British law, is a dubious defence. As Plato wrote: “The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The grudging disclosure of who knew what suggests, at the least, that the Lib Dem leadership prefers to live in the dark. This troglodyte tendency may yet prove Mr Clegg’s undoing.
If so, the timing would be bitter. Despite many mistakes, he has been a brave and occasionally enlightened leader whose fortunes were finally showing some signs of an upturn. Labour’s adoption of a mansion tax was a fillip for Mr Clegg, while Eastleigh would, according to Lib Dem expectations, have been a moment of triumph.
In that scenario, Mr Clegg, blessed with a workmanlike local candidate, could guarantee to see off David Cameron and his floundering Tory challenger while also profiting from Labour’s latest dose of Southern discomfort. With a Conservative Chancellor failing, on his own terms, to get to grips with economic recovery, many think Ed Miliband should be doing better than the Eastleigh polls are indicating, even in a seat ranked 258th on his winnable list.
John Denham, the canny lieutenant heading Mr Miliband’s Southern Taskforce, is more optimistic. In his view, Eastleigh voters are “open” to Labour persuasion. According to Mr Denham’s soundings, building support and winning target seats in the South is “feasible and achievable” by 2015.
For now, however, the main story is the Rennard debacle. As the scandal deepens, some commentators are confecting a hierarchy of harassment with Jimmy Savile at the pinnacle, followed by predatory priests and, at the bottom of the spectrum, political sex pests. Implicit in this premiership of perversion is the obnoxious notion that women should swat off unwanted attention and make less fuss.
That view ignores the poisonous effect of secrecy. This week the much-needed Defamation Bill, intended to stop Britain being the libel capital of the world, came closer to being scrapped after the Lords upheld pernicious amendments by the Labour peer, Lord Puttnam, which would greatly abet those seeking to keep disreputable conduct out of the media.
In France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the IMF, went to court yesterday to try to stop publication of a book by a former mistress who calls him a “pig”. DSK, whose sexual history might never have been unveiled but for the complaints of a New York hotel cleaner, came within a hair’s breadth of the French presidency because of his country’s adherence to laws and habits that shield the secrets of those in power.
British enthusiasts for muzzled media should consider the parables of the “Pig” and the “Octopus” and be grateful that Britain is still a country where allegations, however carefully suppressed, tend to surface and where the truth – whatever it may be in the Rennard case – will ultimately prevail.
Meanwhile, in Eastleigh, the day of reckoning is almost here. If the Lib Dems lose, then their leader’s future will be in serious doubt. But even if a formidable local party machine and voters’ indifference to metropolitan scandals combine to secure victory, Mr Clegg’s difficulties will be very far from over.
As Scotland Yard launched its inquiry into the Rennard case, Lib Dem support dipped to a record low of eight per cent. That nadir is a measure of public disgust. Among the political classes, plenty of people blame Mr Clegg’s plight on bad luck, or his party’s relative amateurism and inexperience, or even on the women who have finally dared publicly to complain.
The electorate is not so forgiving. In an age, and in a party, where those in power preach virtue, fairness and trust, to offer less is to court nemesis. Mr Clegg must produce a plausible account of his own and his henchmen’s roles in the Rennard scandal. If he cannot, then voters baffled by what the Lib Dems are for will gladly inscribe an epitaph reading “Non-Specific Concerns” on his political headstone.
By Mary Riddell, Daily Telegraph