It’s been a while since the Liberal Democrats commanded quite so much media attention or quite so much space on the front pages. If all publicity were good publicity, the volume of coverage that the party is receiving from the Rennard scandal would do wonders for its poll rating.
But that’s not how it works, and particularly not when your top brass has spent months trying to tell voters that the Lib Dems are so very grown up, mature and thoughtful that they’d make any government better. It’s a little more difficult to see this party as the special secret ingredient in a good coalition when all the talk is of the sort of confusing organograms that children might draw when devising secret societies, and when a row that could have quite easily remained an internal party matter had it been dealt with when the allegations were first made turns into a supernova of news.
The Liberal Democrats haven’t just been amateurish at dealing with the Rennard affair, their organisation itself is built in an amateurish way. This is a legacy from the merger of the SDP and the Liberals, with those on the inside of the modern party joking that the SDP didn’t trust its membership, and the Liberals didn’t trust their leadership, and so a panoply of rules were developed which confused everything. It has led to a power vacuum at the top, which sounds very worthy on a conference floor, but doesn’t half make it difficult for a leader to, you know, lead. This was made worse by Charles Kennedy’s leadership, during which Rennard’s power base solidified. By the time Clegg arrived, Rennard was a difficult force to reckon with, and it was in those early days of his leadership that Rennard was known to staff as ‘God’. He also had an assistant nicknamed ‘Jesus’.
It means that other parties, who have kept rather quiet during this row because they know all too well the danger of casting the first stone, are still able to mock the Lib Dems, not because they’ve got a sex scandal (although in the other parties, sex scandals do still tend to involve sex), but because they’ve been so hopeless at dealing with it.