Britain’s deputy prime minister is fighting to salvage the reputation of his party after claims that sexual-harassment allegations against one of the Liberal Democrats’ most powerful figures were covered up for almost a decade. Nick Clegg is accused of turning a blind eye to persistent allegations that the mastermind behind his party’s rapid rise to power had a habit of inappropriately fondling young staff.
The way these allegations against Lord Rennard have been handled has done little to dispel beliefs that senior politicians have been getting away with sexual misconduct in the fusty corridors of Westminster for generations.
Clegg, part of Britain’s coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservative Party, was first made aware of the allegations, which include repeated unwanted advances and inappropriate touching, back in 2008. Party officials were alerted as long ago as 2003. At least four allegations later, it took Clegg until this week to demand a public apology and suspend Rennard from the party. After days of bitter civil war over the party’s handling of the scandal, Liberal Democrat officials told The Daily Beast that a ceasefire had been called to allow time for a negotiated mediation.
Last year, Clegg called for an internal inquiry into his colleague’s conduct after a Channel 4 News investigation reported that the party’s most powerful official had abused his position by inappropriately touching and propositioning women. Little or no protection came from other party officials, many of whom had heard allegations about his behavior.
The inquiry recommended last week that Rennard, who maintains his innocence, should face no disciplinary action. Alistair Webster, concluded that the claims could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt, although he said the evidence was “broadly credible” and he urged the lord to apologize.
After years of virtual silence, Clegg has responded by demanding a public apology. Rennard, however, who made his name in the notoriously murky world of election battles, had shown no intention of backing down. After years at the heart of the party’s establishment, he has many allies and a reputation similar to that of Haley Barbour in the Republican Party. Boosted by Webster’s report, he said had done nothing wrong and would therefore offer no apology.
Clegg’s belated intervention has provoked a civil war among Liberal Democrats, with some senior officials siding with Rennard, who hasn’t been charged with any crime. “The whole thing has become like the Salem witch trials,” Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, told the BBC. “A good man has been publicly destroyed through the media with the apparent support of Nick Clegg.”
Another high-profile Lib Dem caused outcry by complaining that “the party was washing its dirty linen in public.” For most voters, internal party cohesion hardly seemed to be the most pressing issue amid a slew of sleaze allegations. “Better to wash dirty linen in public than have it grow mildew in a dark cupboard,” a party insider told The Daily Beast.
While the politicians argued and postured, some of the victims hit back—saying the party had failed to address their concerns and accusing Rennard of attacking them and treating them “like a coven of witches.”
The refusal to apologize has embarrassed Clegg and the party, which responded by launching a second internal inquiry to try to force Rennard out of the party. Rennard’s aides whispered that attempts him to force him into an apology would unleash a “bloodbath” within the party, and he has appointed a lawyer to explore legal action.
Bridget Harris, a former special adviser to Clegg and one of those who reported Rennard’s conduct toward her to the police, said she had made her allegations public because it was time to change the prevailing culture of British politics. “Institutional sexism is endemic in Westminster,” she wrote. “Let’s make politics a safe place and environment for young men and women to pursue their careers.”
Charlie Woodworth, an equal-rights campaigner at the Fawcett Society, explained that British politics was still utterly dominated by men. All three major party leaders and almost 80 percent of members of Parliament are male, leaving Britain in 58th place in global rankings of female representation in government.
“The U.K. has a long way to go before we can say we have a political culture that values women equally, treats them with respect, and considers sexual harassment of any kind inappropriate and unacceptable,” she said. “For women victims, they are very clearly operating in a man’s world.”