The most British sex scandal of all time— involving an indignant lord, several outraged women, a bumbling politician and no actual sex—exploded last week, as Liberal Democrat party Leader Nick Clegg suspended Chris Rennard, the party whip and life peer in the House of Lords, for refusing to apologize for allegedly sexually harassing several female colleagues. “Alleged,” because, although rumours of Rennard’s wandering hands have swirled in British political circles for over a decade now, an internal party inquiry concluded earlier this month that, while there was broadly credible evidence of behaviour that “violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants,” it was also “unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way.” In other words, he is kinda sorta guilty, only not really.
Four women within the Lib Dem party have come forward in recent weeks with complaints. Their allegations, which go back as early as 2003, involve a lot of inappropriate brushing and accidental-on-purpose knee-patting. Suzanne Gaszczak, a former Bedfordshire councillor, said in 2007 that Rennard touched the outside of her leg and, when she moved away, persisted in brushing parts of her she “didn’t want to be brushed.” Bridget Harris, a former special adviser to Nick Clegg, claims that, in 2003, Rennard squeezed her knee over dinner and suggested perhaps they should take their coffee in his room. She refused, and that was that. Except, of course, it most definitely wasn’t. Harris later resigned over the party’s refusal to take action.
Part of the problem has been Nick Clegg’s rather wishy-washy handling of the affair. When allegations first emerged last February, Clegg initially said he knew nothing about them. He changed course and admitted he had been made aware of certain “indirect and non-specific concerns” about Rennard’s behaviour back in 2008, but, as the lord denied them, his hands had been tied. Since then, however, Clegg has repeatedly demanded Rennard apologize to the women in question—going so far as to suspend him from the party for failing to do so. Clegg’s wife, Miriam, a Spanish-born lawyer, is reported to be personally livid with Rennard, once a close family friend and powerful party strategist.
Rennard vehemently denies the allegations and insists he will not apologize, since doing so would leave him vulnerable to action in civil court. News reports this week confirmed that he was preparing to sue the party over his suspension. Sources close to the lord warned that, if he commenced legal action, the Lib Dems would be subjected to a “bloodbath” precisely at the moment the party ought to be girding for the election next year. Lord Carlile, Rennard’s legal adviser, told the media that Rennard’s lawyers were in possession of damaging personal information that could discredit at least one of his accusers. The complainants have responded with accusations of “veiled threats” and smear campaigns.
In a 2,600-word memo released the day he was supposed to resume his seat in the House of Lords last week, Rennard complained of a conspiracy against him, and said he had succumbed to a state of deep depression in which he had even contemplated self-harm. “If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset. But, for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.”
Apart from delighting political opponents, the Rennard affair has thrown a spotlight on the issue of sexual misconduct in the backroom boys’ club of British politics. Many insist the row is an important battle in the war against sexism in British politics. Women still account for only 22 per cent of MPs in the British Parliament, and the Rennard affair, for many feminists, is a pernicious symptom of this imbalance. Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee reminds us. “Touching up women at work is a way to exert power, often an act of aggression to keep them in their place: Underneath it all, a women’s realm is the bedroom.”
Nick Clegg has continued doing what he does best, which is waffle. Speaking on his radio show last week, the party leader indicated for the first time that he might be willing to accept a qualified apology from Rennard, on the off chance the peer “inadvertently” caused offence to the women involved. Civil court action might threaten to tear his party apart, but for Clegg to accept a disingenuous apology at this point seems worse than ludicrous. Either Lord Rennard is kinda-sorta guilty of accidentally-on-purpose brushing up against women, or he’s simply not.