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A depressing, age-old truth behind sorry Rennard saga

To hear it told, the controversy over Lord Rennard of Wavetree and his alleged misdeeds has become a crisis for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

With that exquisite sense of proportion characteristic of life inside the Westminster bubble, the affair is being described - and how much more shocking could it be? - as terribly bad for the party.

There are splits, disagreements, divisions and faction-fighting. There are arguments over the rights of Liberal peers to independence from the leadership as they seek, without apology, to protect one of their own. There is a belief that Mr Clegg's very leadership is being subjected to a proxy challenge. These, supposedly, are the important issues.

They matter, no doubt, to some of those who still vote LibDem. Divided parties are never popular. But if image is really the issue, the spectacle of four women struggling to make their claims of sexual harassment heard while Rennard insists on his rights is the real catastrophe for Mr Clegg. It says everything about the priorities and the sense of entitlement of a bunch of men who like nothing better than to talk sonorously of individual liberties.

One aspect of the row liable to play badly with better than half the population is Rennard's decision to cast himself as a victim. The investigation by Alistair Webster QC into the allegations against the peer found that they could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt. That's not so unusual in such cases. Nevertheless, the barrister concluded that the complaints of unwanted sexual advances and "inappropriate touching" made by the women were "broadly credible". That would pass for a judgment.

No one said Rennard was irrefutably guilty; a great many people said apologies were the least he could offer. Instead, he decided to deny help to any civil case that might be brought by one or more of the women. Then he produced a long, self-pitying statement. Then he set about threatening legal action after being suspended from the party. No one was liable to accuse him of grace under pressure.

Amid all this sight was lost, almost instantly, of the heart of the matter. Do we still live in a world in which four educated, articulate, professional women can be treated in the manner claimed by one powerful man to whom, it seems, all in the party deferred? Must such women still fear for their careers? Can they still expect - as they now claim - to be smeared and intimidated for daring to challenge one of the boys, a man whose "indiscretions" are dismissed while his fellow LibDem peers cheer his name? So it seems.

The trouble with all those questions is that most people, if honest, don't need to guess at answers. From this you might conclude that feminism has failed, at least where many men are concerned. But you could also understand that feminists have been exactly right all along. At issue in the Rennard allegations is not the problem of a chubby man with "wandering hands". Instead, this case, like so many of these cases, has to do with the use and alleged abuse of power.

By all accounts, a majority of Rennard's fellow (male) LibDem peers refuse to see things that way. They bridle at Mr Clegg attempting to exert his remarkably feeble authority over one of their own. With blackly comical indignation they regard the unpublished Webster report as the product of a "secret trial" and the real infringement of a person's rights. And they treat the women to patronising advice, indifference, and near contempt.

For Rennard's accusers, that must feel like the most unpleasant confirmation possible of their suspicions. The reporting of the affair says, instead, that the real story, the important story, is Mr Clegg and a party at war with itself. To paraphrase, this isn't personal, it's politics, and that's what counts: a leadership under threat, colleagues in conflict, divided loyalties. This is so at odds with the common understanding of what has been going on within a minor and discredited party it approaches surreal.

The broader effect will be to strip away the last pretence that the LibDems occupy the nicer, more civilised end of the Westminster spectrum. That was always a myth, but it endured for decades. For those who could not thole the Labour-Tory duopoly, who hoped to be progressive but not too radical, who abhorred apparent extremes and liked the idea of jolly grassroots politics, the LibDems were the friendly brand. Rennard ran a number of the by-election campaigns in which just such an image was presented.

There will now be another investigation, this time into whether the peer has brought his party into disrepute. In fairness, we should not judge a man prematurely. But anyone capable of proving that Rennard has brought his party into repute will deserve some sort of reward from the barrack-room lawyers of the world. The failure to give his side of the story publicly in any coherent way is another fact of more importance than LibDem "reputational damage".

The allegations are not new: that too will count with a lot of voters. It has taken the LibDem hierarchy a decade just to arrive at the present mess. The women have complained, repeatedly, that they were not taken seriously when they followed "procedure", that the leadership cannot claim ever to have been surprised when their accusations began finally to receive a public hearing. Excited accounts of civil war within the party count for rather less, you might think, than tales of wholesale indifference.

None of this is peculiar to the LibDems, of course. What gives the Rennard affair its resonance are the party's pretensions. But that fact, in turn, only serves as a reminder of how bad things can be for other women in other walks of life - or in other parties, come to that - when power and a sense of male entitlement combine. Proceedings against a range of elderly male celebrities facing serious charges allow the fiction that such things are of the past. The claim isn't plausible.

I doubt it will matter to many that Mr Clegg's leadership has been "undermined". He has managed the trick of self-sabotage unaided well enough since talking his way into government in 2010. The calibre of LibDem representation in the Lords is now known to all, and that counts as useful, but no big deal. The image of Westminster politics has suffered another big dent, but that's hardly a novelty.

Little more than one in five of MPs are women: the statistic remains significant, yet actually of limited practical relevance in the wider world. There are people far more vulnerable than Rennard's accusers, with fewer means to protect themselves from harassment and exploitation. The problem for these women is also a male problem. We tolerate in others what we would not, one hopes, tolerate in ourselves.

After decades of argument, debate and education, the abuse of personal power continues. There is only one reason: men like it that way. The least Mr Clegg can do is to take a little more care when next he recommends party hacks for peerages.

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