Mehdi's Morning Memo: Who Knew What, When?

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RENNARD
PA

The ten things you need to know on Sunday 24 February 2013...

1) WHO KNEW WHAT, WHEN?

Most people will not have heard of Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats and by-election supremo, who has been accused of sexually harassment. Well, until this morning. Consider some of the Sunday newspaper headlines:

"Clegg faces claims of cover-up over party sex pest" (Independent on Sunday)

"New sex pest claims leave Lib Dems in chaos" (Sunday Telegraph)

"Bombshell email: Clegg knew about sex scandal" (Mail on Sunday)

It doesn't look for Clegg - and the Mail on Sunday's report could, if true, be pretty damaging for the deputy prime minister:

"Nick Clegg knew more than four years ago that a top Liberal Democrat official had been accused of molesting women, a bombshell email claims.

"The Deputy Prime Minister has always denied knowing about the allegations – that former party chief Chris Rennard had groped a string of female activists – until hours before they were broadcast by Channel 4 on Thursday evening.

"But this appears to be contradicted by the details of an exchange on Facebook, sent via the social networking site’s private messaging service, written in January 2009 by one of the women who came forward to Channel 4. It includes the line: ‘I just don’t know how Nick can know and not do anything... :-( makes me very sad.’"

Speaking on the BBC's Marr show this morning, however, Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable denied that the party leadership had any knowledge of the allegations against Rennard, who quit as chief exec in 2009 citing poor health. "As far as I'm concerned, and I'm sure as far as Nick Clegg is concerned, this was an issue of him standing down for reasons of health," Cable told the BBC.

"Rather than jump to conlusions, we must wait for this investigation to take place," he added.

2) EYE ON EASTLEIGH

Could the Rennard allegations cost the Lib Dems their Eastleigh parliamentary seat? The closely-fought by-election - caused by the resignation of the disgraced Chris Huhne - is this Thursday and the Mail on Sunday's Survation poll shows the Conservative party four points ahead of the Lib Dems, who had been the bookies' favourites.

Survation's topline voting intentions for Eastleigh are CON 33% (no change), LIB DEM 29% (-7), UKIP 21% (+5) and LAB 13% (no change), .

3) BEST FORM OF DEFENCE? ATTACK

The Lib Dem leader may be under fire over Rennard but he is, nonetheless, on the offensive:

"Nick Clegg has accused David Cameron of being 'stuck in the past' for opposing a mansion tax, amid signs that the Liberal Democrats are ready to challenge the Tories more vigorously over key aspects of economic policy.

"Writing in the Observer ahead of Thursday's crucial Eastleigh byelection, Clegg attacks Cameron and his party for being instinctively against fairer taxation 'even as people on lower incomes feel the pinch'."

"The Lib Dem leader says plans for a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m, recently backed by Labour, is an idea 'whose time has come' and says it is a 'certainty' that some levy on high-value properties will be introduced soon. "The Conservatives and opponents of fairer taxes have a choice," Clegg writes. 'They can dig their heels in and remain stuck in the past. Or they can join with the Liberal Democrats and the chorus of voices seeking to make our tax system fair. Far better, surely, to move with the times.'"

Speaking on the Marr show, Vince Cable refused to rule out the possibility of the Lib Dems joining Labour in voting for a mansion tax: "It depends entirely how the motion is phrased... We'll see what happens when they put their motion [down] in Parliament."

4) DOWNGRADING OSBORNE

Speaking of the economy, could things get any worse for George Osborne? First, a triple-dip recession. Then an admission that he'd miss his own self-imposed debt targets. Now, the dreaded downgrade in the UK's credit rating.

Vince Cable was on the Marr show valiantly trying to play down the announcement from Moody's: "In terms of the real economy, there is no reason why the downgrade should have any impact...these things dont necessarily affect the real economy." Er, I agree with him - so why o why did the business secretary and his Conservative cabinet colleagues spend the past three years telling us it would? Remember the chancellor's claim in July 2012 that the UK's triple-A rating was "a reminder that despite the economic problems we face, the world has confidence that we are dealing with them".

How long can Osborne last at Number 11? Under the headline "Genius George must go, say backbenchers", the Sunday Times reports:

"The stripping of the country's triple-A credit rating prompted a wave of criticism of Osborne among backbenchers, with a number privately suggesting he should be replaced.

"The attacks are likely to become more outspoken after the Tories' expected loss of the Eastleigh by-election this week.

"One Conservative MP claimed the chancellor faced 'fundamental questions of credibility' because his policies had failed to produce economic growth.

"Some MPs believe Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, should be installed in the Treasury after success in bringing his department's finances under control."

Meanwhile, writing in the Mail on Sunday, Tory MP Adam Afriyie - remember him? The stalking horse? - warns that next month's Budget is "the final opportunity to deliver real growth before 2015".

Cable, however, had a pretty pointed response to backbench Tory calls for greater austerity: "A slash and burn response to this..would be utterly foolish," he told the Marr programme, dismissing former Lib Dem adviser-turned-Institute-of-Economic-Affairs-boss Mark Littlewood's call for bigger reductions in public spending to fund tax cuts as the opinion of "a right-wing ideologue."

Hmm, some Labour voices might say that Cable is sitting in a cabinet full of 'em...

5) 'INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR'?

Who'd be a public-relations consultant for the Catholic Church, eh?

As cardinals prepare to select a new pope, the Observer splashes on this story:

"Three priests and a former priest in Scotland have reported the most senior Catholic clergyman in Britain, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, to the Vatican over allegations of inappropriate behaviour stretching back 30 years.

"The four, from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, have complained to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican's ambassador to Britain, and demanded O'Brien's immediate resignation. A spokesman for the cardinal said that the claims were contested.

"O'Brien, who is due to retire next month, has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, condemning homosexuality as immoral, opposing gay adoption, and most recently arguing that same-sex marriages would be 'harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved'. Last year he was named "bigot of the year" by the gay rights charity Stonewall."

Cardinal O'Brien has strongly denied the claims.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of Michael Jackson's dance moves recreated with... lego!

6) FOLLOW THE MONEY

"Ashcroft pulls plug on Tory donations" is a headline I never thought I'd see. The Sunday Times reports:

"The peer who spent £10m of his personal fortune bankrolling the Conservative party has declared he will withhold funding for its next general election campaign.

"Lord Ashcroft, whose finances played a crucial role in Tory efforts to win marginal seats in 2010, has told friends he has given enough money and is unwilling to devote further resources to securing an overall majority in 2015.

"It comes amid mounting pessimism among Tory supporters about the prospects of victory. Although Ashcroft has not publicly expressed doubts over the party’s ability to win, privately he is said to fear Labour is likely to secure more seats. A source close to Ashcroft said: 'He feels he has done his bit.'

7) 'KNIVES OUT'

"Knives come out for Patten," says another headline in the Sunday Times, "gently."

The paper reports:

"Lord Patten's handling of the Jimmy Savile affair was 'underpowered' and he might consider whether to resign as chairman of the BBC Trust once the new director-general is bedded in, government sources said last night.

“'He [Patten] is not a lame duck and maybe the worst is over. But maybe, too, he himself will want to move on once Tony Hall [the new director-general] is properly in place,' said a senior government source. 'I don’t think, however, it is a matter of hanging him out to dry.'

"Patten, a former chairman of the Conservative party and the last governor of Hong Kong, has confided in friends that the past four months at the BBC have been 'the worst experience in my public life'."

Says the man who was booted out of parliament in 1992 and had to preside over the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese dictatorship...

8) LABOUR AND LEVESON

The Observer's Peter Preston and Nick Cohen both take potshots at Labour's position on Leveson and press regulation today.

But the party's deputy leader Harriet Harman was in combative form on the Marr show this morning. She reminded viewers that David Cameron had promised he would implement the Leveson report as long as it wasn't "bonkers".

She also suggested the PM was being "lent on by some aspects of the press".

"Man up," she told Dave.

Harman did say that Labour would "look at a royal charter" - the Tories' alternative to statutory underpinning of the press, as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson - "but not if it waters Leveson down".

Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reports that "a bitter battle is breaking out between senior Cabinet ministers and the BBC, with claims that the corporation is 'biased' and 'too close to Labour'". Really? Again? Yawn.

9) GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE

From the Sunday Telegraph:

"His private life was scandalous, his business dealings corruption prone, and his achievements during three terms in office somewhat patchy. One thing, however, that always helped Italian voters to forgive Silvio Berlusconi was his ability to work a crowd.

"... But as Italians go to the polls today to elect a new government, it seems that the disgraced 76-year-old politician has lost even his populist touch.

"Far from electrifying his audiences, for much of the two-month campaign he has seemed disorientated and confused, with none of his previous spark and focus.

"... Overall, his campaign has been more like that of the plodding Left-winger Pier Luigi Bersani - the current front-runner, with 35 per cent of the vote - than the dynamic Il Cavaliere (the Knight) that many remember.

"Mr Berlusconi is tipped to come second in the polls with about 30 per cent."

Phew!

10) THE ACADEMY GETS POLITICAL

"And tonight's big Oscars triumph?" asks the headline in the Observer. "It'll be politics."

Hurrah! Referring to 'Lincoln, 'Zero Dark Thirty', 'Argo' and 'Les Miserables' (huh?), the paper says: "From the abolition of slavery to the 'war on terror', and even including revolutionary France, the Academy Awards will be dominated by heavyweight political films."

I'm rooting for Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg and 'Lincoln' - a political anorak's dream Hollywood movie. It even manages to make a legislative debate on Capitol Hill gripping, emotive and suspenseful...

QUOTE UNQUOTE

"The medicine is not working so the chancellor says increase the dose - that's crazy economics. It is like an 18th-century doctor bleeding a patient as they get sicker and sicker." - Ed Balls borrows a line from Paul Krugman to respond to the chancellor's decision to stick to plan A for austerity.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 43
Conservatives 32
Lib Dems 11
Ukip 9

That would give Labour a majority of 114.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@MichaelLCrick Very hard indeed to believe Lib Dem official claim that Clegg was "not aware" of allegations against Lord Rennard til contacted by C4News.

@TimMontgomerie Huhne once said Andy Coulson either knew about phone hacking or was grossly negligent. Could we apply same reasoning to Clegg re Rennard?

@vincentmoss Ken Clarke: "Governments don't usually win by-elections". Preparing for defeat in Eastleigh? #Murnaghan

900 WORDS OR MORE

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, says: "Tory MPs are agitating for a dramatic budget to transform their party's fortunes. They will be disappointed."

Iain Martin, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says: "The Rennard scandal goes to the heart of the Lib Dems."

Owen Jones, writing in the Sunday Mirror, says: "The unemployed mum-of-11 isn't taking us for a ride, George Osborne is the true villain."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol