James Forsyth

Lord Rennard, Mark Oaten and the Lib Dems’ embarrassing adolescence

Lord Rennard, Mark Oaten and the Lib Dems’ embarrassing adolescence
Text settings

Imagine if seven Tory Cabinet ministers had resigned since David Cameron became Prime Minister. Then think about another seven being accused of having covered up alleged sexual misconduct by a senior party official. It would put ‘Back to Basics’ in the shade. It would be the biggest scandal the Tory party had faced. But this, proportionately, is where the Liberal Democrats find themselves today.

Of the five Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers appointed in May 2010, two have resigned — David Laws and Chris Huhne. Another two, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, are facing questions over the role they played in a cover-up of Lord Rennard’s alleged misdeeds. Given the casualty rate and a poll rating that is often a single digit, it’s remarkable the party is still in one piece.

A common theme connects each Liberal Democrat scandal: they happened when the party was not subject to the same level of scrutiny as Labour or the Tories. No one kept too close an eye on the Lib Dems because no one much cared. This induced a certain recklessness, the extent of which is only now becoming apparent.

In the modern media age, Labour or the Tories would never have tried to cover up a leader with a drink problem as the Liberal Democrats did with Charles Kennedy. Indeed, one of the most arresting details of Mark Oaten’s dalliance with a rent boy was that the party’s then home affairs spokesman was shocked the prostitute recognised him.

The Liberal Democrats were then happy to live off the thrill of the odd by-election win or council capture. They did not entertain serious hopes of governing the country. The spirit of that age was summed up by two quotes from a Rennard-inspired campaign guide: ‘Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly’, ‘Oppose all service cuts… No cut is going to be popular and why court the unpopularity that goes with the responsibility of power?’ It was a time of naked opportunism — and, for some, opportunistic nakedness.

When Clegg ushered Rennard into retirement in 2009, he wasn’t just trying to deal with concerns about his chief executive’s behaviour. He was trying to break with this attitude. He wanted to turn the Liberal Democrats into a party that craved responsibility. But it keeps being haunted by reminders of its wild youth — from personal decisions on speeding points to pledges on tuition fees that never could have been met.

It is not the present that is the problem for the Liberal Democrats but the past. No Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister has had to resign for their conduct in office. By contrast, two Tories have had to quit on account of things that they have done as ministers, or — at least — were accused of doing.

The Liberal Democrats have taken to government with surprising ease. Even now their backbenchers tend to be more realistic about the travails of mid-term government than their often suicidal Tory counterparts. There is less plotting against Clegg’s leadership than Cameron’s — despite the Liberal Democrat leader being far less popular.

To be sure, the Clegg operation in government was fairly chaotic for the first year or so. The Civil Service was not set up to support a Deputy Prime Minister who really was the second most important person in the government. Clegg was left drowning in paperwork and surrounded by less-than-stellar civil servants. He would frequently begin meetings by complaining that he hadn’t had time to look at the proposal under discussion.

But since the AV referendum defeat, the Clegg operation has got its act together, with a far greater sense of direction and purpose. Lib Dem policy ideas are being ruthlessly assessed to see how they appeal to what Clegg calls ‘our market’, the quarter of the electorate or so who are believed to be considering voting Lib Dem in 2015.

Hiring a slew of political advisers has left the Liberal Democrat leader fully briefed on what is going on across Whitehall. Indeed, the Clegg system has been so successful that Cameron intends to copy it. I understand that No. 10 is looking to bring in a further set of Tory special advisers. Their task will be to keep a political eye on what every department is up to. However, this might not happen quickly, because the Prime Minister wants to recruit various greybeards rather than just transfer staff from Tory HQ.

But the Rennard scandal has exposed a problem with the Clegg operation: it cossets the leader too much. Liberal Democrat ministers complain that Clegg’s holiday should have been interrupted to draw a full response from him. But it wasn’t — and the deputy Prime Minister returned on Sunday to deliver a statement that contradicted what Vince Cable and Jeremy Browne had said on television that morning. This was bad enough. What makes this worse is that both Cable and Browne had been simply repeating what they’d been told by Clegg’s office, in his absence.

Some blame this chaos on the importing of the American chief-of-staff model to British politics. They maintain that too often the leader’s operations act like secret-service agents trying to protect the principal without regard to the damage they’re causing to those around him. This might work in America, where the President is far more distinct from his party than any British politician. But in Britain, what’s bad for the Liberal Democrats is bad for Nick Clegg — as the Rennard scandal demonstrates.

There’s also irritation that while the Deputy Prime Minister is busy putting out statements to explain his position, the party is stopping others from defending themselves. To too many, there seems to be one rule for the leader and another for the rest of his MPs.

The Liberal Democrats have proved surprisingly resilient in government, so this scandal is unlikely to bring down the Deputy Prime Minister or the coalition. There’ll be much soul-searching at the party’s spring conference next weekend. But the result of the Eastleigh by-election will do more to determine the mood of the activists towards Clegg. This whole unseemly business is, however, a reminder of how hard it has been for Britain’s newest party of government to shake off its irresponsible adolescence. Clegg must hope that the worst of his party’s past is now behind him.