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Monday, February 25, 2013 

Notes on a scandal.

There's a highly wearying trend in political journalism where the mere sniff of a scandal is treated as though it's a Watergate in waiting.  The phone hacking scandal was many things, but it hasn't (yet) brought down the prime minister.  To then see the BBC's Norman Smith on the news at 1 pounding his fist and talking of what did he know and when he did he know it in relation to Nick Clegg and the claims of sexual harassment being made against the Lib Dems' former chief executive Lord Rennard was ever so slightly surreal.  It doesn't reflect very well on the party, but to use the language of that unique event? Please.

As Craig Murray writes, this seems a usual case of the political class being well aware of the allegations but for whatever reason they didn't emerge at the time.  Indeed, the Telegraph has today published a letter it sent back in 2010 to Clegg's chief of staff detailing the claims, which are almost identical to those set out by Channel 4 News last Thursday.  Despite the way the right-wing press in particular have jumped on the issue yesterday and today, there really isn't much of a story here.  Nick Clegg does seem to have stretched the truth in claiming he knew only of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about Lord Rennard, but if anything this seems to have been due to how Rennard himself continues to deny any impropriety.

What is fairly clear is that as so often, Rennard's resignation due to "health and family reasons" was nothing of the kind.  Encouraged, if not told to stand aside, the party presumably felt the issue was closed.  Which brings us to why the allegations have emerged now, and while it's far too glib to say it's all to do with the Eastleigh by-election, especially when it was C4 News which broke the story, it's obviously going to be worked to the advantage of the other parties.  It's also not apparent what Alison Smith and Bridget Harris want to happen now beyond the inquiries set-up by the party (beyond ensuring Rennard isn't left alone with women, as they fear he still is); it could well make the party rethink their policy on positive discrimination, but all-women shortlists haven't gone down well at the Labour grassroots, and the Lib Dem emphasis on incumbency also stands in the way.  Whatever happens, Watergate it ain't.

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