Whether or not someone should be in receipt of the party whip has never been just a matter of whether they have lost a criminal or civil legal action. At its most banal, the whip can get withdrawn when someone regularly votes against their own party – something that clearly does not involve any breach of the law.
I was glad to hear that criminal charges were not to be brought against Chris Rennard. I worked for him for many years, and owe much of what I know about political campaigning to his expertise. I also owe much of my subsequent career outside the party to his willingness to let me innovate with online campaigning at a time when even email was often considered a bit of a novelty.
I am also far more sympathetic than most to the idea that people have been conspiring against him, trying to oust him first as Chief Executive and then from the party. There are some who have been in regular conflict with him for many years and who have picked up whichever issue is to hand to try to win out over him. I’ve never found his more extreme conspiracy theories involving big tobacco firms convincing, but the more modest ones? Yes, there are some credible claims to be made about people deliberately trying to do him down.
What that doesn’t mean, however, is that all the claims about his behaviour are untrue. I’ve no reason to doubt the police’s conclusion that none of them match the criminal standards that would have been required for a prosecution.
But when it comes to who should have the whip – or indeed, if someone should continue on the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC) – behaviour doesn’t have to have broken the law for it still to be right to say that it isn’t up to the standards we as a party expect.
The FPC, of which I’m also a member, will shortly be discussing the party’s policy on equalities. It will over the next few months be discussing our general election manifesto, including many equality issues once again. Members of the Lords debate and vote on such matters regularly.
Against that background, I’m convinced that Chris Rennard’s behaviour has at times been such that an apology and reflection, as recommended by Alistair Webster, would be appropriate.
I am convinced of that in part because of Webster’s own conclusions. I am also convinced of that because of the number of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, short of any civil or criminal standard but still causing distress, which I have personally heard credible accounts of, from multiple people both within and outside the party, applying to multiple different occasions.
No conspiracy theory or stories of manipulative political rivals can sweep them all away. Nor does the fact that I know many female Liberal Democrats who have spent long periods of time in close company with Chris Rennard, never saw anything untoward and passionately believe in his innocence.
The cumulative weight of evidence is just too great when I add together both Webster’s conclusions and what I have heard myself, especially bearing in mind that some of the people involved have barely, if ever, met each other.
I have no reason to conclude any of the incidents involved breaking the law, especially bearing in mind the police’s conclusion. Nor do I think that such incidents make anyone irredeemable. I also think that Chris Rennard has been very badly served by Alex Carlile’s public defence of him, with his references to Henry VIII and North Korea, and indeed the party’s own processes have not done him huge favours either.
But the credible evidence does mean apology and reflection are right – and that without that, neither the party’s whip nor membership of the FPC are appropriate.