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Sex-row Rennard hires a top lawyer

The sexual harassment scandal engulfing the Liberal Democrats has moved a step closer to the law courts after the peer at the centre of the allegations instructed senior counsel to advise him.

A spokesman for Lord Rennard, the party's former chief executive, said he had instructed a QC specialising in public law to advise him on the "lawfulness or otherwise" of the decision to launch a second inquiry into his conduct.

It follows the announcement yesterday that he was being suspended from the party pending the investigation into claims that he brought the Lib Dems into disrepute by his refusal to apologise to four women activists who alleged he sexually harassed them.

He was ordered to issue the apology by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg after an earlier inquiry by Alistair Webster QC concluded that the women's claims were credible but there was insufficient evidence to bring disciplinary charges.

Supporters of the peer dismissed the latest inquiry as no more than a "re-run" of the first.

"A senior QC specialising in public law matters has been instructed and is advising Lord Rennard as to the lawfulness or otherwise of the decision to hold a second inquiry," the spokesman said.

The latest move will fuel speculation that Lord Rennard - who has always denied the allegations against him - could now seek an injunction blocking the inquiry.

With one of the women whom he is alleged to have harassed refusing to rule out a counter claim against the peer, the Lib Dems are faced with the prospect of becoming embroiled in a series of damaging court battles which could drag on for months.

Friends of Lord Rennard insisted that he did not want the case to end up in the courts but claimed that attempts to resolve the issue through mediation had been blocked by Lib Dem president Tim Farron.

Earlier former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown appealed to Lord Rennard to end the turmoil gripping the party and issue an apology.

Lord Ashdown, who described himself as a "friend and admirer" of the peer, said it would "cost him nothing" to say sorry for any offence he had caused.

The peer has refused, in part because of warnings that to do so could leave him "defenceless" in the event of a civil action against him, but L ord Ashdown, insisted that he do so without compromising his legal position.

"It is very easy to do. No one is suggesting that Chris (Lord Rennard) should put his own innocence, as he claims it, in jeopardy," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"If it is the case - this is what Webster QC asserted - that offence has been given, it costs him nothing to say 'If inadvertently I have caused you hurt, I apologise for that'. It's done every day. It is the very heart of mediation."

The row over Lord Rennard's treatment has opened up bitter divisions within the party with his supporters claiming he has been subjected to a kangaroo court while critics have argued that swifter, tougher action should have been taken against him.

Lord Ashdown acknowledged that it had not been the Lib Dems' "finest hour" but he strongly defended Mr Clegg's handing of the case, saying there was no other course of action open to him.

"In the end, the issue that Nick has stood on with great courage and in the face of great flak from the press and indeed some in the party too, is an important issue, an important principle, and he is right to do so," he told BBC News.

Mr Clegg sought to reassure his MPs about his handling of the situation when he addressed their weekly meeting at the Commons.

He told them them that he still believed it was "the right judgment" to stand by the QC's report and its recommendation that Lord Rennard apologise.

And sources said that he told the behind-closed-doors meeting that the party had sought to stick meticulously to its internal rules and was confident it had done so.

"It was the right judgment then. It's the right judgment now and he stands by it," they said following the meeting at which it was clear Lib Dems felt "bruised".

But Mr Clegg faced demands from one senior figure - former Liberal Party leader Lord Steel - for the suspension to be lifted to help the search for a compromise.

He told ITV News that the leadership needed to "get a grip" and sort out what was becoming a "disastrous" mess that was already badly damaging the party.

"The first rule in politics is if you're in a hole, stop digging. The fact is they have been digging on both sides for the last two days and it's disastrous."

He suggested there had been scope for the peer to make a " compromise apology" but that the suspension decision had removed that.

Asked what his advice would be to Mr Clegg, he said: "Well it's a bit hard to say it should be the party leader but collectively the party leadership should get a grip on this and say it's got to be reversed.

"There should not be a threat of expulsion. Chris Rennard should withdraw his threat of legal action and we should get this sorted out once and for all.

"There's no doubt that some offence was caused to women. That's not in doubt. The question is, can we now get an agreement to regret what happened in the past and make sure it doesn't happen again and get back to normal politics?

"I think even now they could withdraw the threat to suspend him from membership and try to get an agreed compromise so the party can continue its normal work."

There are no plans at present for Mr Clegg to speak at the equivalent meeting of the party's peers tomorrow.

A senior Lib Dem source said that "obviously we disagree" with Lord Steel and that reinstating Lord Rennard "is not going to sort it out".

The Deputy Prime Minister will face questions about the latest developments when he takes to the airwaves tomorrow for his weekly Call Clegg phone-in on LBC Radio 97.3.

It has been brought forward by 24 hours as Mr Clegg is flying to Switzerland to join political, financial and business figures at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Liberal Democrat Women group pressed for the use of an outside mediator to try to resolve the dispute when its represenatives met Mr Clegg.

Its chair , Ros Gordon, said it had been a "very productive meeting".

"We discussed LDW's work behind the scenes to try and resolve the current situation," she said.

"LDW suggested the use of a professional impartial mediator. LDW consider this could be a useful tool to resolve the matter. LDW will also be raising this with the Party President Tim Farron."

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