As James observed last night, Nick Clegg’s statement on the Rennard allegations raised more questions than it answered. Lord Rennard continues to strenuously deny the claims of sexual harassment made on Channel 4 News last week and in other reports since. But the problem is that when allegations were being made and rumours were circulating, nothing was done, regardless of whether those claims would have been proven or not. And as Nick Clegg hasn’t closed down the row, here are five questions that the party and those examining it will want to answer:
1. There are discrepancies between the different accounts of when the Lib Dem leadership received the specific allegations from Channel 4. Cathy Newman says she first had a tip-off about this three years ago, and that the Channel 4 newsroom gave the party full details of the allegations to be broadcast two days before the broadcast. The programme’s news editor Ben De Pear tweeted: ‘we gave Lib Dems womens’ allegations 53 hrs before broadcast, they replied @18.59 on day of broadcast’. Channel 4 News starts at 19.00.
But Nick Clegg said ‘I did not know about these allegations until Channel 4 informed the party of them shortly before they were broadcast’. Vince Cable said the same on Pienaar’s Politics last night.
2. What are ‘indirect and non-specific concerns’? Clegg said in his statement that these were ‘anonymous’ and were taken to his office ‘indirectly’ in 2008. Tim Farron told the Today programme that he heard a ‘general rumour year or so ago’. But Alison Smith said she was trying to complain and found herself in a ‘Kafkaesque’ nightmare where she was repeatedly told that no-one wanted to make a formal complaint, even though she wanted to do so herself. Were her complaints ‘indirect and non-specific’?
3. Were those examining the allegations too close to Rennard? He was a highly-respected figure essential to the party’s by-election success. The Mail alleges today that one of the members of staff who responded to those ‘indirect and non-specific concerns’ was Alison Suttie, who apparently referred to herself as Lord Rennard’s ‘niece’. Clegg says Danny Alexander spoke to Rennard about his conduct, but were any efforts made to take formal complaints or to probe further the rumours that were circulating? If not, the Lib Dems are suffering from the same curious lack of curiosity found in other institutions sitting on a scandal. Was it the case that the leadership didn’t believe the allegations, whether they would be proven true or not, were just not very serious?
4. What role did the allegations play in Rennard’s resignation as chief executive? He stepped down on health grounds, but were the allegations part of the discussions he held with Danny Alexander shortly before the resignation?
5. Is there a wider culture of sexism and sexual harassment in Westminster? Lord Rennard is unlikely to have been the only alleged ‘sex pest’ operating in Parliament, and as many MPs from other parties have been careful to say over the weekend, rumours circulate about many parliamentarians. What wider lessons are there for the Westminster village? Is there a possibility that there are others who didn’t feel they could complain after inappropriate treatment, whether because they felt bound by party loyalty, or that they’d be told they should buck up their ideas and accept that a bit of inappropriate touching comes with the territory? This row could well encourage others to come forward.