The hole into which politicians, feminists and commentators alike seem to have dug themselves over Lord Rennard reminds me of the story of the foreman of the Cork jury who, when asked if they found the prisoner guilty, replied: ‘Not guilty, but we think he should give back the ham.’ Here we have a man of good character who has been the subject of a police investigation which has been dropped. A second, perhaps less formal, inquiry produced what could be called a ‘Cork jury verdict’. Not enough evidence, but he should apologise anyway.
Perhaps the fault (if any) lies in the rider. As a result everyone is up in arms. Some agree he should apologise to the women involved. No, he should not, say his supporters – he says he didn’t do anything improper. What then is there to apologise for? If he does so, he almost certainly lays himself open to an action for damages. But if the ‘victims’ are aggrieved, why do they not bring an action in which the burden of proof is that much less?
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
The affair also reminds me of the trap into which the Labour politician Lord Wigg fell in 1976, from which there was no escape. He was accused of soliciting prostitutes in Park Lane one evening. He said he had merely left his car to buy an evening paper. The charge, a summary-only offence, was heard by a stipendiary magistrate (district judge), who acquitted Wigg. Unfortunately he added that while he believed the evidence of the police, it was not sufficient to establish guilt.
As Wigg had been acquitted there was no right of appeal, so he was effectively finished as a politician. Many thought the case should have been halted at half-time without the necessity of Wigg giving evidence.
In Rennard’s case, there are now threats of writs, counter writs and from the point of view of the entranced public, exposure. There are also suggestions the matter might be settled privately and confidentially. If so, the parties might care to recall the case of Sir William Gordon-Cumming, accused of cheating at baccarat in the 1890 Tranby Croft scandal. His confidential admission — made under protest — became public knowledge within a matter of weeks. No internet in those days, either.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor