It is all too easy for political parties to hide behind their own rules, when dealing with difficult issues, but the on going Lord Rennard and Mike Hancock crises has revealed an appalling lack of leadership in the Lib Dems.
There have been catalogue of mistakes, lost emails, inaction, suspicion of a cover up, suppression of at least one of the reports, a review of how the Lib Dems treat women, a byzantine investigation process and a botched presentation of the report.
Botched, because Lib Dem high command’s decision to withhold the report from all, including Lord Rennard himself goes against both natural justice and more importantly their own rules, which they claimed were absolute.
And botched, because the decision to break their own rules, confirms that there has been an attempt by Nick Clegg, or Party apparatchiks to direct these events.
It also confirms that the dithering has nothing to do with the Party’s constitution and everything to do with the paralysis of Nick Clegg and his inability to take decisive action against the Lib Dem’s most powerful grandee, even though his personal authority is now on the line.
Then yesterday, a copy of a report into veteran MP Mike Hancock was sensationally leaked to various media outlets including political blogger Guido Fawkes. The report carried out on behalf of Portsmouth City Council, by top lawyer Nigel Pascoe QC, investigated sexual assault and harassment allegations. It concluded that that the evidence from the complainant was compelling and there was a “prima facie evidence of serious and unwelcome sexual behaviour”.
Trying not to repeat the mistakes made last week, the Lib Dems announced the suspension of Portsmouth South MP from their Party, claiming that this was the first time they had seen the evidence, but again this was not true.
Two senior Lib Dem councillors sat on the disciplinary panel last summer that considered this report. They even took part in a vote in the Council just two days ago, which saw the Lib Dems block attempts by Tory and Labour Councillors to publish the report.
And Nick Clegg may not of seen this actual report, but his office and Lib Dem HQ were told about these allegations two years ago in 2012 and even dispatched the then Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael to carry out a thorough investigation.
So denying any knowledge of the report, or allegations just simply won’t wash.
All in all this is adding up to be the biggest crisis of Nick Clegg’s leadership and it was entirely preventable.
So what should Nick Clegg do now?
The priority must be to get this off the front pages. While just one day of story has a limited effect outside the Westminster Village, a week of lurid headline is hugely damaging and toxic to their “right on” brand.
Secondly, Nick Clegg must re-assert his authority on his Party that is increasing looking rudderless, irrelevant, and facing substantial losses in May, with one poll saying they could lose every one of their MEPs.
Key to asserting his authority will be moving against the two pretenders to his crown, who are on manoeuvres. The bouncy Tim Farron has been popping up on our TV screens trying to remind the public who he is and to brandish his equal opportunities credentials, while the ever spry Vince Cable, keeps a dignified silence. Mr Cable, unlike their Party President is well known, but his silence on the issue, suggests that he backing Lord Rennard and the powerful group of grandees supporting the peer.
Mr Cable must be forced to support Clegg and Mr Farron needs to be gagged.
Thirdly, the Lib Dems need to come up with something that will act as a distraction, turning this negative to a positive. Just four years ago they were promising legislation that would give the public the power of recall over misbehaving MPs. They should dust this policy off and push it very hard.
Finally Mr Clegg must clean up his own Party. No longer can the Lib Dems hide behind the blanket of anonymity. After all they form a small part of the Government, which means they are subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as Labour and the Conservatives. The fact that all these allegations are historic just confirms this.
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