Centre of the storm: Clegg faces the worst crisis of his leadership

Nick Clegg faced one of the worst crises of his leadership today, as his statement on the allegations of sexual harassment by a senior party figure dragged him to the centre of the row.

The frenzy of media speculation then only grew when it emerged the Liberal Democrat leader had flown out the country from Heathrow. Some reports suggest he has returned to Spain, where he was enjoying a holiday before the scandal broke.

The deputy prime minister said he only knew of specific allegations against former party chief executive Lord Rennard after a Channel 4 documentary was broadcast last week, but admitted he was aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" as far back as 2008.

That seems to contradict the message from his officials, who spent three days insisting he had not known of the complaints.

"I have got absolutely nothing to hide. Why would I?" Clegg told BBC Radio Solent this morning.

"I know some of these women very well – one of them worked for me. I spoke to her last night. She never said any of this to me."

In his statement last, Clegg said he was "angry and outraged" at the accusations directed towards him.

He insisted that when rumours emerged around Lord Rennard he asked Danny Alexander, then his chief of staff, to warn him "any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable".

He added: "As my office only received concerns indirectly and anonymously, as those involved understandably wanted to maintain their privacy, there was a limit to how we could take this matter forward following Chris Rennard's resignation [on health grounds]."

The Lib Dems later confirmed Alistair Webster QC would act as head of internal investigation into the allegations.

Unconfirmed reports suggested Met police had contacted Lib Dem officials to ascertain if criminal activity had taken place.

"I will not stand by and allow my party to be subject to a show trial of innuendo, half-truths and slurs," Clegg said.

Farron told the Today programme this morning: "The one thing I probably can tell you without going through due process is that we screwed this up as a party.

"There are individuals out there who we have a duty of care towards who we did not fulfil that duty of care to them and that is something we have to learn from, apologise for, and make sure never happens again."

Shadow minister for equalities and women Kate Green said Clegg's statement raised more questions than it answered.

"After days of total denials – some only hours ago from Lib Dem MPs Vince Cable and Jeremy Brown – Nick Clegg has now been forced to admit that he did know of what he calls 'indirect concerns' about Lord Rennard.

"At issue is not just a series of serious allegations from a number of women, but how the Liberal Democrat party responded to those allegations."

The row could not come at a worse moment for the Lib Dems, who are entering the final stretch of the Eastleigh by-election, with some polls showing a Tory lead in the constituency.

Rennard strongly denies the claims.