Nick Clegg: Rennard claims 'were in the background' when he quit

Nick Clegg faced questions about what he knew and when on his weekly phone-in radio show on LBC

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Nick Clegg has admitted that concerns over Lord Rennard's behaviour were "in the background" when he resigned as Lib Dem chief executive in 2009.

Police have spoken to party officials about allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women by the peer.

Mr Clegg told LBC Radio that he had wanted a change when Lord Rennard quit but the "immediate reason" for his going was "ill health".

Friends of Lord Rennard told the BBC he quit after specific health warnings.

According to the BBC's chief political correspondent Norman Smith, Lord Rennard - who denies the allegations - was told that he might only have 12 months to live if he did not radically change his lifestyle and that this was why he stood down.

In a separate development, the Lib Dems have reprimanded another peer following reports he telephoned and angrily remonstrated with one of the women who had complained to newspapers about Lord Rennard's conduct.

Aides to Mr Clegg said the Lib Dem leader regarded Lord Stoneham's conduct as "completely unacceptable".

The BBC understands the Lib Dem chief whip in the Lords, Lord Newby, spoke to Lord Stoneham to warn him over his conduct.

'General concerns'

Mr Clegg, who became leader in 2007, after the alleged incidents involving Lord Rennard took place, said of his departure as chief executive in May 2009: "Of course, these things were in the background but his ill health was the immediate reason why he stood down."

He also said: "Like any new leader of any organisation or political party, I wanted to make sure that the organisation reflected my priorities, my values.

"I felt it was time for a change at the top of the professional party."

Mr Clegg said his then chief-of-staff Danny Alexander had "challenged" and "confronted" Lord Rennard in 2008 over "general concerns" about his behaviour, and had told the peer that "this is not acceptable".

He added: "We were told at the time that the women didn't want to take the matter forward in relation to complaints."

Mr Clegg said he had not known of specific allegations until Channel 4 News broke the story last week.

An email sent to a senior aide by the Daily Telegraph shortly before the 2010 election setting out detailed allegations had not been "passed on to me".

'Abandoned'

Mr Clegg also insisted that a face-to-face conversation with then MP Sandra Gidley soon after he became leader had been "of a general nature".

Start Quote

I think the lesson is you've got to come clean right at the beginning, get a more independent inquiry and get the facts out there and where necessary put it right”

End Quote Michael Fallon Consevative minister

One alleged victim, Susan - who wants to keep her surname private to avoid media intrusion - said on Tuesday that she had spoken to at least nine other women affected by incidents going back as far as 2001.

She added: "He [Mr Clegg] didn't know how to deal with it and then didn't deal with it well."

Mr Clegg told LBC on his weekly phone-in: "It distresses me immensely that women I know - they are clearly good people whom I respect - feel abandoned."

He added that the Lib Dems had shown "serious failure in the way the organisation was run", but said he had "revamped the party very considerably".

Mr Clegg said he believed in treating everyone "with respect and dignity", adding: "That clearly did not happen here, to put it mildly. There were some serious mistakes and the women were not listened to and let down."

'Fine man'

The Metropolitan Police said it was working with party officials to establish whether any criminal activity had taken place.

After meeting the officials on Tuesday, officers appealed to "anyone with information" to come forward.

Conservative business minister Michael Fallon accused the Lib Dems of "not being straight" over their handling of the allegations and changing their story.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "I think the lesson is you've got to come clean right at the beginning, get a more independent inquiry and get the facts out there and where necessary put it right. Now that hasn't happened. This has gone on far too long."

But senior Lib Dem Baroness Williams said the Lord Rennard situation had been "hopelessly exaggerated" and he was "a very fine man".

She went on to say that women in Parliament were "not treated very fairly" and described the Commons as a "very bullying place, a very masculine culture" that needed to change.

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