Open warfare in the Lib Dems? Legal threats fly as Rennard row continues.

Open warfare: Threats of multiple legal actions as Rennard affair drags Lib Dems into the dirt

Open warfare: Threats of multiple legal actions as Rennard affair drags Lib Dems into the dirt

Liberal Democrats were weighing up the prospect of multiple legal actions over the Chris Rennard affair this morning, as the party came close to going to war with itself.

A woman who claims she was sexually harassed by the peer refused to rule out legal action, while a statement issued on behalf of Rennard confirmed he was "having to take legal advice with a view to civil action" following an internal investigation into whether he has brought the party into disrepute.

In the afternoon reports circulated that he had already launched an injunction, but these were unconfirmed.

The ongoing crisis threatens to pit Lib Dem peers against the leadership, as well as alienating women campaigners and employees from the party.

"We're being told that Lord Rennard may be taking legal action, Bridget Harris says she may be taking legal action. This is a nightmare," Anthony Greaves, a fellow Lib Dem peer, told Newsnight.

Different factions were now "chucking missiles at each other" and "it is going to produce fault lines and schisms in the party which will last for years", he added.

Rennard insists he cannot apologise to the women he is alleged to have sexually harassed because to do so would open him up to legal action.

That view will only have been hardened since Bridget Harris, one of the women who made a claim against him, refused to rule out legal action.

"In terms of civil action, how can I possibly say what I would or wouldn't do, depending on the circumstances," she told BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight.

"What I'm really interested in is getting back to the core point, which is: I'm very glad now that the party has recognised that, as women, and the complaints that we've made, we've been listened to.

"They've been acknowledged and the party leadership has been prepared to, essentially, back our position, which is that we are owed an apology and it isn't tenable for Lord Rennard to remain a member of the Lib Dems for as long these allegations and this cloud hangs over him."

But former party leader Paddy Ashdown rejected the suggestion Rennard, who he said he viewed as an "old friend", could not apologise without imperilling his 'not guilty' claim.

He suggested that Rennard say sorry by using this formula: "'I am certain of my innocence in this matter but if it is the case that I inadvertently gave offence I regret that.'"

Ashdown, who earned the nickname 'Paddy Pantsdown' for his own extramarital activities in the late 1990s, added: "The party that Nick leads has got to be one that respects individuals and one that understands the change in the climate when it comes to respect for women."

The initiation of the internal investigation into Rennard triggered his temporary suspension, thereby removing the immediate threat to Nick Clegg that he would take his seat in the Lords despite refusing to follow his party's leader's command to apologise.

But it also threatens to drag out the row and expose further faultlines in the Liberal Democrats.

"I very much regret the wounds that have opened up within my party because many people have acted without being aware of the facts," Rennard said yesterday.

"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."

Lord Rennard statement in full

Rennard can still sit in the Lords as an independent peer while he is suspended from the party.