LONDON (Reuters) - British police said they would review accusations of sexual misconduct made against a former official of the coalition’s Lib Dems, intensifying a scandal that threatens to overwhelm the party ahead of a by-election.
Detectives from London’s police force will consider whether “criminal activity” took place relating to the allegations of sexual impropriety made against the party’s former chief executive Chris Rennard, the Metropolitan Police Service said.
Rennard, a member of parliament’s upper house, denies the allegations, but has stood down from party duties while they are investigated.
The furore comes at a difficult moment for the party following the resignation of a former cabinet minister Chris Huhne this month after he admitted asking his then wife to accept a penalty for a speeding offence he had committed.
A local election to replace Huhne takes place this Thursday, with the Lib Dems, below 10 percent in national opinion polls, fighting a close battle with their Conservative coalition partners for the seat.
The Lib Dems’ stumbling response to the reports that Rennard inappropriately touched female party members and activists several years ago has put it on the back foot since they emerged in a television news report last week.
Lib Dem President Tim Farron, in an apparent criticism of party leader Nick Clegg, said the party had “screwed this up”.
Conservative-supporting newspapers have leapt on the crisis, putting Clegg, who serves as deputy prime minister, on the spot after he appeared to change his position on when and how much he knew about the allegations.
The Daily Mail accused Clegg of a cover-up after he disclosed he had been aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns” about Rennard in 2008.
Clegg denied hushing up the matter, saying his chief of staff had gone to Rennard at the time to put the concerns to him along with the warning that such behaviour was “wholly unacceptable”.
“It is wrong ... to suggest that we could have acted further given that we didn’t have specific allegations five years ago. We have them now. That’s why we will act,” Clegg told Sky News.
The party has now announced two internal inquiries, one into how the party handled the allegations, and another into the allegations themselves.
“We don’t want there to be any no-go areas. If there are things which are criminal they need to pursued,” party deputy leader Simon Hughes told Sky News.
Editing by Andrew Heavens