As the sex pest scandal continues to engulf his party, Nick Clegg’s language is proving as flawed as his management. He keeps telling us that the Lib Dems need to “get to the bottom of this”, hardly the most fortunate of phrases when faced with allegations of groping by his former top official Lord Rennard.
But Clegg’s problems run deeper than his choice of words. For this tawdry episode has exposed the morally repugnant nature of the Lib Dems. They have always posed as the “nice” party, claiming to be more honest, straightforward and compassionate than either Labour or the Conservatives. But the Rennard debacle has ripped away the veneer of decency.
The habit of duplicity starts right at the top. What a tangled web Nick Clegg has spun with a series of increasingly unconvincing explanations about his behaviour in this unedifying affair. When the allegations of harassment (which he has denied) first surfaced last week against Lord Rennard, Clegg claimed that he had never heard of such accusations before. Indeed, quivering with self-righteous fervour, he said it was an “outrage” to suggest otherwise. But soon Clegg began to change his story.
On Sunday night he admitted, in direct contradiction of his previous statements, that he had actually known of “concerns” about Lord Rennard’s conduct towards women but only in a “non-specific” way. Then yesterday he retreated further. During a phone-in on a radio show he was forced to confess that “Rennard’s inappropriate behaviour was in the background” when the peer left his job as the Liberal Democrats’ chief executive in 2009, supposedly on health grounds.
Clegg's initial proclamation of ignorance was always absurd. Rennard was not only the party’s key strategist but also a close ally of Clegg’s. It was ridiculous to suggest that the Lib Dems could lose such a figure without the leader knowing the circumstances. Indeed yesterday the former Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley explained that she told Clegg of Rennard’s alleged manual enthusiasms as early as 2007.
The whole shabby business has made a mockery of the party’s pious rhetoric about gender equality. Helen Jardine-Brown, a former head of fund-raising for the party, said that four years ago, soon after making a complaint about Rennard, she had her job cut when she became pregnant and was given a £50,000 redundancy settlement which was conditional on her silence.
The scandal has also shown once again how utterly unfit the Liberal Democrats are for high office. Obsessed with their ideological posturing they come across as a bunch of second-rate, over-eager student politicians. It is terrifying that thanks to the coalition they should have a real say in government. They cannot even run a proper investigation into an internal personnel problem, never mind a department of state.
Clegg is nothing more than a professional apparatchik, a former MEP and Brussels bureaucrat devoid of any experience in the real commercial world. The same is true of Danny Alexander, his former Chief of Staff and now Treasury Secretary, who seems to have botched the initial inquiry into Rennard in 2009.
Before the dizzy heights of running Clegg’s office, Alexander had been a press officer for the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the fanatical proEU outfit Britain in Europe.
Rennard himself is an unappealing figure, even discounting the allegations against him.
Though he was revered by the Lib Dems as a brilliant strategist, to those outside the party he seems a cynical manipulator for whom party advancement came before integrity. One Lib Dem handbook written in 2002 advised activists “don’t be afraid to exaggerate” and “be wicked: act shamelessly, stir shamelessly”.
Shamelessness has long been a feature of Lib Dem history. One of the last Liberal prime ministers, HH Asquith, was an inveterate groper of women as well as a chronic alcoholic. The aristocratic Lady Diana Cooper recalled with a shudder how she had to “defend my face from his fumbling hands and mouth”, while another woman remembered how Asquith would take her hand and lead it to the business end of his trousers. Asquith’s successor David Lloyd George had no more respect for women’s anatomy. “He is mental on matters of sex,” said one of his aides.
In this spirit, Lloyd George told the young Frances Stevenson that he would only appoint her his Downing Street secretary on condition she became his mistress. From Charles Kennedy’s drinking to Mark Oaten’s fondness for boys, scandal is woven into the fabric of the Liberal story.
But what makes Clegg’s gang even worse is their disastrous impact on Government policy. In every arena, from the EU to human rights, from immigration to the green agenda, their kneejerk-progressive outlook is inflicting real damage.
As demonstrated by their obsession with soaking the rich through endless tax rises, they have no interest in wealth creation, only in Marxist-style wealth redistribution. Clegg attacks Eurosceptics as “infantile” and opponents of gay marriage as “bigots” but in his devotion to social engineering, green politics and surrender to Europe he is the true immature bigot. Lord Rennard was the architect of the modern Lib Dem revival. It can only be hoped that the scandal he has generated will lead his party back into the wilderness.