Lib Dems in turmoil over Rennard
The Liberal Democrats were in turmoil today as the leadership faced bitter recriminations over its handling of sexual harassment allegations against a party peer and the prospect of legal action.
Lord (Chris) Rennard is poised to sue after he was suspended pending an investigation for bringing the party into disrepute by refusing to apologise to four women who complained about his behaviour.
The furore has exposed deep divisions in the party with supporters of the peer claiming he has been subjected to a kangaroo court while others feel swifter, tougher action should have been taken against him.
It has also heaped pressure on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has faced claims he failed " to show moral leadership" in the way he has dealt with the allegations.
Senior Lib Dem Lord Greaves said the situation was a "nightmare" and called for a South African-style "reconciliation and mediation" system to bring both sides together.
"It's doing a lot of damage and it is getting worse by the day," he told BBC 2's Newsnight.
"The real problem is that the leadership of the party, broadly defined, not just Nick Clegg, have taken action which actually has rebounded and made matters worse."
Lord Rennard said he would not say sorry for something he had not done as it could leave him "defenceless" in any future civil action.
The former Lib Dem chief executive said he was "enormously distressed" by the situation and claimed there was a "lynch mob mentality" from some in the party.
Claims made within the party about him during the general election had led to him considering "self harm", his statement revealed.
Bridget Harris, one of the women who alleged she was harassed, refused to rule out taking legal action against the peer if he apologised.
She told Newsnight: "I'm quite happy to accept on a personal level his apology if he is willing to take responsibility for his actions."
Lib Dem president Tim Farron acknowledged that the allegations "were not dealt with properly" when they emerged in 2010.
An independent report last week by barrister Alistair Webster found that the allegations against the peer were credible but could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Lord Rennard voiced his "regret" if the women had been hurt, embarrassed or upset by anything he did but refused to go any further.
He was expected to return to the Lib Dem benches but an emergency meeting of the regional parties committee, which oversees party disciplinary procedures, decided to suspend his membership.
A spokesman for Lord Rennard described the committee's decision as "extraordinary" and said the peer was "taking legal advice with a view to civil action against the party".
"He does not wish to see legal action between fellow Liberal Democrats, but his membership of the party matters more to him than anything apart from family and friends," the spokesman added. "Indeed he feels that the party is also his family.
"He believes that the suspension of his membership announced this morning should be lifted, that the party should now give him the report to which he is entitled and that Liberal Democrats should act in the best spirits of the party that he joined as a teenager."
Lord Rennard said the party leadership had been "unwise" to demand an apology from him, and urged them to "let the matter rest".
In a statement of more than 2,600 words, the peer - who has worked for the party for 27 years and has been a member for 40 - said: "Courtesy has always been an essential part of my moral compass.
"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."