FOR a man whom no-one outside - and indeed few inside - the Westminster bubble would recognise, the Liberal Democrats have got themselves into an almighty quandary.

Lord Rennard has now been suspended by his party for allegedly bringing it into disrepute for not apologising over sexual harassment claims brought against him by four women. The claims were not proven beyond doubt by an internal inquiry, which recommended no further action be taken, but it suggested an apology would be in order for any hurt or embarrassment caused.

Yesterday, distressed by his suspension, the peer issued a statement in which he portrayed himself as a victim. He spoke of his personal health problems, including depression, of a whispering campaign against him, and said if he apologised for something he had not done, he could be open to civil action. Lord Rennard went on, not to apologise but to express to the four complainants "regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset".

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Yet the announcement of a disciplinary inquiry means the former chief executive, who through three general elections steered the party to treble the number of its MPs, not to mention the intervening 13 by-election victories, could well be out of the LibDem family; possibly even by the time of its spring conference in York or the European elections in May.

The whole affair has been marked by a remarkable flow of overblown rhetoric.

Lord Carlile, the peer's legal adviser, suggested the party's approach had "made the North Korean judicial system seem benign" while his brother Edward denounced its "illiberal tactics that would be worthy of the Ku Klux Klan".

What all this shows is a chasm between those for and those against Lord Rennard.

Having failed to show firm leadership, Nick Clegg moved swiftly yesterday, announcing a disciplinary inquiry. Yet within hours Lord Rennard had deepened the crisis , announcing he was seeking legal advice with a view to taking the LibDems to court.

For a party sliding in the polls, the LibDems need the Rennard row like a hole in the head. Moreover, it is conspicuously low on women MPs - just seven of 57 are female - and needs to attract more women candidates and voters. The Rennard row could well set back by many years the LibDems' ambitions to be more gender-balanced it might even help to seal Mr Clegg's and the party's fate at the next General Election.