Taking out the trash: Lib Dems appoint banker to probe sex complaints

The Lib Dems face a 'voter dilemma' in the next general election
The Lib Dems face a 'voter dilemma' in the next general election

By Alex Stevenson and Tony Hudson

The Liberal Democrats have appointed a banker to investigate allegations of sexual harassment against ex-chief executive Chris Rennard.

Fund manager Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, was announced by the party as the person charged with probing the Lib Dems' 'culture, process and complaints' problems.

Together with the expected sentencing of the party's former energy secretary Chris Huhne later, the Rennard scandal has seen the Lib Dems forced to accept their exceptionalist status has proved unjustified.

"Following recent allegations it is clear that we in the Liberal Democrats failed to live up to our political ideals," party president Tim Farron admitted today, as party delegates gathered in Brighton for the Lib Dem spring conference.

"We recognise that we need to adapt how we operate. As a political party which prides itself on equality, we must give everyone confidence they will be treated fairly and equally and that they will be listened to."

Farron went even further in an interview in the House Magazine, likening the Lib Dems to a "cockroach" and admitting it was in a "critical state".

"We may well be cockroach-ish, but we shouldn't take that for granted," he said.

"One day someone will stand on us if we are not careful. We shouldn't assume our survival is guaranteed."

Morrissey said she would talk to Lib Dems at all levels of the party in a bid to achieve a "culture shift".

"Too much of our society has operated in old-boys' networks," she said, in comments released by the Lib Dem press office.

"It leads to an atmosphere where women don’t feel valued or listened to. We can only make changes in society when those at the top in business and politics lead by example."

The allegations against Lord Rennard - which the peer has denied - did not cost the Lib Dems Huhne's Eastleigh seat, despite a hard-fought campaign from the Conservatives.

But the party faithful fear the negative headlines the story has generated, coming as Huhne faces a custodial sentence for perverting the course of justice, could irreparably damage the Lib Dem brand ahead of the next general election.

A voter dilemma looms

Tory peer Michael Ashcroft has even suggested the party must choose between winning back lost support from voters flocking to Labour or the Conservatives at the next election.

His poll found only one in 20 of Lib Dem voters in the 2010 general election would vote for them again if an election was held tomorrow.

As much as 29% of Lib Dem voters in the last election told the poll they would vote for Labour or the Green party, 15% would defect to the Conservatives or Ukip and 22% said they did not know who they would for.

Ashcroft warned Nick Clegg his party should not become over-confident after their by-election success in Eastleigh, as local and general elections have completely different dynamics.

"Localness matters, but a general election decides who walks up Downing Street", he said.

Farron stood by Nick Clegg, calling him "a very very popular leader within the party", and commended him for his ability to withstand the amount of pressure and scrutiny he has been subjected to as part of the coalition.

The party president said it was "not a surprise" the media treated the party so harshly over the Lord Rennard scandal, but said voters "just don't care" about it and going "into institutional self-defence mode" would not be helpful.

"The important thing is to make sure you go into protecting the innocent mode and making sure you learn from them, because you won't learn anything if your first priority is to make sure you have a good PR day," he added.

Part of the problem facing the Lib Dems as the next general election edges steadily closer, according to Ashcroft, is getting the balance right between winning back disillusioned voters on the left who are still angry they joined the coalition and retaining the support of more conservative voters.

"The Lib Dem dilemma, then, is to decide how far to go in trying to win back people who have largely made up their minds to support Ed Miliband, and indeed only voted Lib Dem in the first place as a left-wing alternative to Labour", he added.

Ashcroft also warned the Conservative party against action which would "make the Lib Dems' decision for them".

"For the Tories to learn the wrong lessons from Eastleigh and exclusively pursue the Ukip leaners would be to leave the part of the field occupied by moderate centrist and even centre-right voters wide open to the Lib Dems."


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