Another evening and another set of headlines opening with the now familiar line ‘senior Liberal Democrats have denied they knew’. Not the allegations about Lord Rennard (which he denies) this time, but whether they had any prior warning in spring 2011 about the coming storm that seems likely to land Chris Huhne and his ex-wife in jail. What should have been a scandal about Chris Huhne could taint the entire senior party.
Isabel argues that the political fallout from today’s verdict and next week’s sentencing of Pryce and Huhne will be relatively minor. In the short-term I agree, but in the long-run days like today are occurring a little too regularly for the Liberal Democrats. Yet again we have suspicions of collective amnesia at the top of the party; something that is starting to look an awful lot like a pattern with each negative story that Clegg faces.
The people that really gave the Rennard scandal ‘legs’ were the party leadership. A mature political party, seasoned in crisis management and used to the level of scrutiny faced by parties of government would have handled that saga very differently. Clegg was conveniently out of the country when the news broke but was forced to change his story as soon as he returned, not once but again and again. Vince Cable, ever helpful to his leader, has issued strong a strong rebuttal today that Pryce had told him and his wife about Huhne’s speeding points as she alleged in evidence presented in court, just as he issued a strong rebuttal that Clegg had had known about allegations and rumours concerning Lord Rennard. As on most difficult days for the Liberal Democrats, poor Danny Alexander was chased down the street by a Sky News camera crew and a pack of correspondents unimpressed by his silence and sheepish ‘no comment’.
Obviously the claims of a systematic cover up over allegations made by multiple party staff against Rennard are far more serious than this issue of timing. Whether Nick Clegg laughed his head off about Huhne’s potential downfall before it was printed in the national press we may never know, but the real implication of this twist to the story is one of lasting impression. Yet again the issue of Lib Dems and trust comes about. Can we really believe a single thing this party says when at the first whiff of trouble everyone seems so very certain it was most definitely nothing to do with them, often before the whole picture has emerged?
While Chris Huhne will be seeing a judge about his future early next week, the party colleagues he leaves behind will be facing a far less understanding jury soon. Will the electorate trust the Liberal Democrats? A hard sell when their panicky, amateur style repeatedly drags their internal scandals to their own leader’s front door.