The only reason a real scandal doesn’t break out more often is the media do more rooting than the politicians. They generally only break out when the politician has run one up the wrong person in the media, or their behaviour is just so appalling that even the appallingly behaved media rooters take exception.
Allegations about the Liberal Democrats’ former chief executive Lord Rennard, first aired by Channel 4 News last week, are now shaking the party to its core. Nick Clegg has already had to concede that “indirect and non-specific concerns” were made known to him five years ago, and now this newspaper has revealed an email exchange from 2010 in which five specific allegations about Lord Rennard were put to Jonny Oates, then the party’s director of electoral communications and now Nick Clegg’s chief of staff.
There’s no doubt that the Liberal Democrats are now taking very seriously claims that Lord Rennard behaved inappropriately towards women by propositioning and touching them. That’s some comfort, at least, to those who were the subject of his unwanted attentions. Because, as one woman told us anonymously on Friday, senior members of the party who witnessed Lord Rennard’s alleged sexual impropriety at the time did nothing but giggle and smirk.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that one story might help change politicians’ attitudes towards women. But let’s be honest, those attitudes badly need to change. And it is not just the Liberal Democrats who have a problem – which perhaps explains why Labour has been relatively quiet about Mr Clegg’s troubles in the last few days.
One of the women we spoke to, Bridget Harris, who was until recently one of the deputy prime minister’s special advisers, said that although her story happened to involve Lord Rennard, it’s a “depressingly familiar tale”.
“When I was a young woman, and I was starting off working in Westminster, I came across a lot of behaviour from MPs and people from all parties that was just essentially condoned by a system that didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “So, over the years, there have been countless numbers of women who have experienced the kind of things I’ve experienced, and basically didn’t know what to do, and told people – like I told people – and those people didn’t quite know what to do.”