NICK Clegg saw an apology from a LibDem peer weeks before it was passed to the four women who accused him of sexual harassment, it has emerged.
The LibDem leader's role came under intense scrutiny just hours after one of his predecessor's called on him to let Lord Rennard back into the party.
Lord Steel, who also served as Holyrood's first presiding officer, said Lord Rennard should be given back the Lib Dem whip.
"He's brought closure to what has been a very unfortunate episode in the time of the party," he said. "I think he should come back."
But there was also mounting pressure on Mr Clegg from a number of the women involved, who have called for the peer to be expelled.
Four women, including former Aberdeen councillor Alison Smith, have accused Lord Rennard of sexually harassment.
One, Bridget Harris, yesterday demanded his expulsion.
She said: "Who does Rennard speak for any more? He has been shown to have on many occasions acted completely and deeply inappropriately towards women and has taken advantage of his position as a very powerful member of the LibDems to do so.
"It's a fairly cut-and-dry case that the party should accept that ... they have to ask him to leave."
Just hours later, Lord Carlile, a legal adviser to Lord Rennard, confirmed that the peer had asked that his apology not be passed to the women until after last week's elections.
In a letter to LibDem HQ on Monday, Lord Rennard asked that the statement be passed on "now that we are well past polling day".
Lord Carlile added: "Lord Rennard was absolutely very concerned personally not to do any possible damage to the party in the run-up to last week's local and European elections.
"So, although this apology was seen, for example, by the party leader weeks ago, it was held back until the elections were over."
The row could not have come at a worse time for Mr Clegg, following disastrous elections and an attempted coup on his leadership.
One of his most senior colleagues, Business Secretary Vince Cable, has been forced to deny being part of the plot to oust him while LibDem peer Lord Oakeshott resigned after it emerged he was involved.
Police have been urged to investigate the peer's dramatic parting shot - an accusation the party indulged in "cash for peerages". On resigning, Lord Oakeshott also said Mr Clegg should be replaced.
Yesterday, Lord Carlile called on rank-and-file LibDem members to have their say on Mr Clegg's position as party leader. The LibDem branch in Cambridge is planning to hold an emergency meeting next month on his leadership. If enough local groups follow suit, they can potentially trigger a leadership election, although that remains unlikely.
Lord Carlile said: "The Liberal Democrats have the internet addresses I suspect of at least 80% of their members so it wouldn't be difficult to consult.
"The old liberal tradition of consulting members could not be more sound than in this situation."
Lord Rennard's apology followed a very public 15-month fight against the allegations. In his statement, Lord Rennard also appeared to admit he may have caused the women who made the allegations against him "distress".
Police dropped an investigation into the claims, but a probe carried out for the LibDems concluded there was broadly credible evidence he had violated the women's personal space.
Lord Rennard has appealed against being disciplined for bringing the party into disrepute by his failure to apologise.