The gravest crisis of Nick Clegg's tenure as Liberal Democrat leader deepened last night after he admitted he was aware of “non-specific” allegations that a senior party official had sexually harassed women.
Despite days of denying any knowledge of the claims, the deputy prime minister confirmed that “indirect and non-specific concerns” about Chris Rennard's conduct had been passed to his |office.
His admission plunged the party into turmoil only three days before the Eastleigh by-election, where it had been confident of victory.
Channel 4 News last week broadcast claims of alleged impropriety towards several women by the peer and former chief executive of the party.
Mr Rennard said he was “deeply shocked” by the allegations, which he described as a “total distortion” of his character.
The women said they had |reported the incidents to senior figures in the party.
Returning from a brief holiday in Spain, Mr Clegg said he was “angry and outraged” at suggestions that he would not have investigated specific allegations. He said: “When indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard's conduct reached my office in 2008, we acted.”
He said his then chief-of-staff, Danny Alexander, put “these concerns to Chris Rennard and warned him any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable”.
Mr Clegg (right) said: “Chris Rennard categorically denied he had behaved inappropriately and he continues to do so. As my office only received concerns indirectly and anonymously, there was a limit to how we could take this matter forward following Chris Rennard's resignation.”
According to a report yesterday, one of the women who complained told a friend on Facebook: “I just don't know how Nick can know and not do anything.”
The storm is a new setback for the party which has seen its support more than halve in the opinion polls since it went into coalition with the Conservatives, has crashed to a series of dire by-election defeats and seen Chris Huhne and David Laws resign as cabinet ministers.
Chris Rennard is the man |behind the Lib Dems' recent successes, a backroom guru influential at its London headquarters for decades.
He ruled the party |machine for more than a decade, first as Director of Campaigns and Elections |between 1989 and 2002 and then as a chief executive |between 2003 and 2009.
His greatest achievement was transforming the |Liberal Democrats from the also-rans of British politics into a credible election-|winning force. In 2010, the Liverpudlian left the party with sufficient seats to gain power for the first time in generations