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Don't panic, Lib Dems. All this manure just makes us grow stronger


We will learn from the Rennard case. And whatever happens at Eastleigh we will emerge united and fighting behind Nick Clegg


I am writing this article before we know the outcome of the epic Eastleigh byelection. And deliberately so. Because its message applies, win, lose or draw in this close-run contest. A line in Kipling's great poem If says: "… Triumph and Disaster … treat those two impostors just the same." It's a good motto for the Liberal Democrats just at the moment. A good result in Eastleigh will make what we Lib Dems must do next easier. A disappointing result will make it more difficult. But neither will change it.

A few home truths to begin with. First, we have never fought such a crucial byelection (probably no party has) against such a difficult backdrop as the past week or so – or such a painful one.

The pain comes first from the fact that our pride in ourselves has been hit. As liberals we led the cause of equality and respect for gender and sexual orientation long before it was fashionable, and often against the ridicule of the very press that now attacks us. So, to have been found wanting (and perhaps worse) in the Lord Rennard case is excruciating to say the least.

Of course this is not just a problem confined to the Lib Dems – we live in a society which, as a whole (and in some surprising places), is having to come to terms with these issues. A wise old friend from another party said to me the other day: "We are not having as much fun at your expense as you may imagine, Paddy. We are far too busy thinking: 'There but for the grace of God …'" Quite so.

But there is no comfort for us in that thought. The only comfort from this painful passage of events will come at the end of the forthcoming inquiries, when we must put in place a system that will be a model for others on how we should behave in future and what should happen when we fail. No lesser outcome one will do.

Second, this has been doubly painful because it has placed in question the actions of someone who many of us had known only as an outstanding and admired servant of our party – while at the same time, it seems, placing others we also admire in a position of pain and humiliation for which, they say, they received neither answer nor adequate redress. All justice depends on due process, and this is especially so when it is our own friends and our own colleagues who stand on either side of the line between accuser and accused. There is, I fear, more pain ahead on this front and a difficult healing period to follow. But what is very clear is that we will get to the truth through the trials ahead – carefully, painstakingly and within the counsels of our party, rather than on the pages of the tabloid press.

Final point. Having spent the last week (yes, it really is only a week) sheltering from the fiercest of shot and shell from our enemies, it is perhaps only natural for some to believe that, if only we had done things better, it might have all turned out somehow different. It wouldn't have.

No matter what defences we had put up, no matter how we had explained ourselves, no matter how perfectly modulated our every phrase and rational our every explanation, this

was a story that was going to run and run. It is important for us to recognise that, whatever the pain that has resulted for us in this process, there has been some very good, entirely legitimate and highly effective journalism from Channel 4 and many other newspapers over this affair – even if, as many now are recognising, certain elements of the rightwing press have deliberately pushed this story in pursuit of an undisguised political agenda in advance of the Eastleigh byelection and the enactment of the Leveson proposals.

None of this is to say that there are no lessons for us to learn from what has happened. There are lots. It is just to say that, even if we had achieved presentational perfection in the face of the most ravenous media feeding frenzy I have ever experienced as a Lib Dem in 40 years of politics, it would have made no more than the merest scrap of difference to the outcome.

For the rightwing press, this was the perfect story; the perfect storm in which they held all the thunderbolts. It rolled up, in a single attack, three targets that they have long loved to hate: the Lib Dems, the coalition, and finally (and for them most deliciously) the Leveson proposals. That's why they have devoted so many column inches, so much invective and such lip-smacking relish to the task. That was only to be expected. Fortunately in Nick Clegg, who has led our party to government after 70 years in the wilderness, we have a leader who has shown time and again that he has the resilience and strength to ignore all this and get on with the job.

There are some times in politics – and, with no newspaper to be our bugle, they come more often to Liberal Democrats than most – when you just have to stand there while the press dumps 10 buckets of manure over your head and still emerge, united, fighting – and as, hopefully Friday morning's news will show – winning as well.

But if that's not what the morning's news shows, then I have say this to those in our party who may be tempted to join the so far refreshingly non-existent headless chicken tendency, by flapping around the studios of Westminster squawking panic. Take your lead instead from our outstanding byelection candidate Mike Thornton, and from the steadiness, energy and commitment of our team of mostly young Lib Dem activists who, as I write this in the last hours before the polls close, are getting on with the job of fighting the byelection of their lives (and of mine) down in Eastleigh.