British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted today that "very serious mistakes" were made over a sex scandal which has rocked his Liberal Democrat party ahead of a crucial by-election. Clegg repeated his insistence that he was unaware of allegations of sexual harassment by several female party workers against former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Chris Rennard until they emerged last week. But he conceded that rumours about the behaviour of Rennard -- who strongly denies groping the women -- had been "in the background" of the peer's resignation due to ill-health in 2009.
"There were some very serious mistakes and the women were not listened to and were let down," Clegg said during his weekly phone-in on a London radio station. He said that "clearly something went seriously wrong in the organisation" as complaints dating back several years were not acted upon, but insisted: "My party has nothing to hide, I have nothing to hide." The Lib Dems, the junior coalition partners in the government, have launched two internal inquiries into the allegations, which are also the subject of a police investigation, amid a media storm which has left the party struggling to respond.
Clegg's leadership has come under strain, amid claim and counterclaim about what he knew about the allegations against Rennard and when. The affair could not come at a worse time as the Lib Dems battle to retain their parliamentary seat in Eastleigh, southern England, in a by-election on Thursday, which itself was sparked by another scandal. The seat was vacated by Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne, a former energy minister, who is likely to receive a jail sentence after pleading guilty to asking his wife to take speeding points on his behalf a decade ago and then lying about it.
It is unclear how much of an impact the Rennard affair will have on the vote in Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems are in a tight race against Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party, the senior partners in the governing coalition. But commentators say it reveals serious weaknesses in Clegg's leadership and the structures of a organisation which until the 2010 general election was a party of protest that had never before held power.