UK & World News
Lord Rennard Accusers Could Take Legal Action
Women who say they were harassed by Lord Rennard have not ruled out taking legal action against the Lib Dem peer.
It follows a threat by Lord Rennard himself to take the party to court after being suspended for refusing to apologise to the alleged victims.
The moves have plunged the party into civil war, with a senior figure describing two opposed camps "chucking missiles at each other".
Pressure is mounting on party leader, Nick Clegg, who has been accused of mishandling the case with a "complete failure of leadership".
Mr Clegg said the peer would not be able to return to his role at the House of Lords without saying sorry. He warned "no apology, no whip" - urging his colleague to "do the decent thing".
Bridget Harris, who quit as an adviser to Mr Clegg over the failure to act on her allegations, said "of course" she would not rule out future legal action against Lord Rennard.
"We're taking the process one step at a time," she told BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight programme.
"In terms of civil action, how can I possibly say that I, what I would or wouldn't do, depending on the circumstances."
Another of the alleged victims, Alison Smith, said "hell would freeze over" before the peer apologised.
The party issued a statement saying the peer was being investigated for bringing the Lib Dems into disrepute.
Shortly after the news of the fresh investigation, Lord Rennard issued a 2,600 word statement in which he claimed to be a victim of a smear campaign by the media and a "whispering campaign" within the party.
He said he had suffered from stress, anxiety and depression that had led him to contemplate self-harm.
"It is impossible to describe how enormously distressed I am by this situation and I am certainly too ill to attend the House of Lords today," he said.
The scandal has escalated ever since Alistair Webster QC completed an investigation into the affair.
He said there was credible evidence the peer had behaved inappropriately and called on him to apologise. But, he added, there was not enough evidence to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt.
Lord Rennard does not want to say sorry in case it opens him up to legal action, insisting that he is not guilty.
The statement from the Liberal Democrats on Monday said: "Nick Clegg made clear last week, and again this morning, that it would be inappropriate for Lord Rennard to resume the Liberal Democrat whip unless he apologises. Lord Rennard has refused to do so.
"The Regional Parties Committee, which oversees disciplinary procedures under the English Party membership rules, today decided to suspend Lord Rennard's membership of the party pending a disciplinary procedure.
"As such, he cannot return to the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords.
"Lord Rennard will now be investigated for bringing the party into disrepute on the grounds of his failure to apologise as recommended by Alistair Webster QC."
But Mr Clegg is also under pressure from Lord Rennard's allies. The peer has been a Liberal Democrat since he was a teenager, a former chief executive and a driving force in a number of election campaigns.
A spokesman for him described the committee's decision "extraordinary" and said the peer was "taking legal advice with a view to civil action against the party".
The spokesman added: "He does not wish to see legal action between fellow Liberal Democrats, but his membership of the party matters more to him than anything apart from family and friends. Indeed he feels that the party is also his family."
Lord Carlile has compared the party's meting out of justice to Lord Rennard to that in North Korea.
Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP who has known the peer since he was 17, said the scandal was like the "Salem witch trials".
"This isn't Jimmy Savile. This is someone touching someone's leg through clothing ? equivalent to an Italian man pinching a woman's bottom."