Clegg faces a key test of his leadership over Rennard

Lib Dems suspend Rennard

Lib Dems suspend Rennard

Chris Rennard was suspended from the Liberal Democrats today, while he is investigated for bringing the party into disrepute.

The obscure Lib Dem regional parties committee will now investigate the peer, in a move which eases the immediate danger to Nick Clegg's authority but threatens to prolong the crisis.

"Nick Clegg made clear last week, and again this morning, that it would be inappropriate for Lord Rennard to resume the Liberal Democrat whip unless he apologises. Lord Rennard has refused to do so," the party said in a statement.

"The regional parties committee, which oversees disciplinary procedures under the English party membership rules, today decided to suspend Lord Rennard’s membership of the party pending a disciplinary procedure. As such, he cannot return to the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords.

"Lord Rennard will now be investigated for bringing the party into disrepute on the grounds of his failure to apologise as recommended by Alistair Webster QC."

The dramatic move removes the immediate danger to Clegg that Rennard would sit in the Lords this afternoon in a direct challenge to his authority.

But the statement raises new problems of its own.

Rennard is expected to launch a private legal action to secure an injunction against the party for the suspension, a legal battle funded by Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies.

It also brings Clegg one step closer to outright confrontation with Liberal Democrat peers.

Rennard , who suffers from diabetes, was regardless unable to attend the Lords today because of health problems.

Immediately after the Lib Dem announcement, he released his own statement to the press, saying: "It is impossible to describe how enormously distressed I am by this situation and I am certainly too ill to attend the House of Lords today.

"I very much regret the wounds that have opened up within my party because many people have acted without being aware of the facts. I am particularly grateful to my friends and colleagues in the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords for much personal support.

"I would advise my friends in the party to let the matter rest, as it should have done, with the simple conclusion of the independent Investigator that there should be no further action."

Clegg was hamstrung by his party's democratic rules and had no power to prevent Rennard taking his seat on the government benches in the Lords.

Under party rules, the chief whip and leader of the Lib Dems in the upper chamber control party membership there.

They could have denied Rennard his position, but he could challenge the decision with a vote of party peers.

That could have proved highly embarrassing for the Lib Dems if, as expected, party peers voted for him to regain the whip.

Most Lib Dem lords are understood to be broadly supportive of their fellow peer, who is widely credited with helping to turn the party into an election-winning machine with a fierce ground operation.

They discussed the matter for just 30 minutes after the report was published and gave a hostile response to Paddy Ashdown when he advised them to think it over for a week before coming to a decision.

Even if Rennard does eventually apologies, Clegg could still find himself in a difficult political situation.

Many women in the party – not least those who made the allegations against Rennard – would likely be outraged by Rennard's return even if he does apologise.

But Clegg as said he would welcome the peer back if he issues the apology, as demanded by the internal inquiry.

"If he apologises and does what Webster said in his report last week, yes, that is then concluded because that's the end of the formal process," he said.

"If he apologises, does what he's been asked to do, and reflects and changes his behaviour, it's reasonable of him to think: 'I've done what I've been asked to do'."

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman attacked Clegg for saying the peer could return to the party's policy committee if he apologised.

"The Lib Dem women who complained about Lord Rennard did a brave thing in coming forward and making an official complaint. But now they are being hung out to dry and accused of suffering from 'distress'," she said.

"An apology because 'they have suffered distress' is not good enough. Rennard sits on the policy committee that decides the Lib Dem manifesto. If he engaged in sexual misconduct he has no place in the leadership of any political party – apology or not.

"Nick Clegg is hiding behind the Lib Dem bureaucracy.  He must take action. He's the leader of the party.  Only he can do it."

Lord Carlile, Rennard's legal adviser, told Sky News: "I think it would be quite wrong for Lord Rennard to apologise.

"Here we have a situation in which there has been found to be no case against Lord Rennard but he's being lined up against the wall by people who are trying to force him to apologise in a way no lawyer would advise."

Some of the women who made the original complaints against Rennard have publically suggested they would have to quit the party if he is given the whip.

"I think that will make my position as a member of the Liberal Democrats quite untenable," Susan Gaszczak told the BBC.

The internal Lib Dem report found allegations against Rennard were "credible" but did not satisfy the criminal standard of proof used for disciplinary proceedings.

Clegg has since demanded a review into the standard of proof required in such cases.