Mehdi's Morning Memo: The Return Of 'Calamity Clegg'?

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NICK CLEGG
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The ten things you need to know on Monday 25 February 2013...

1) THE RETURN OF 'CALAMITY CLEGG'?

Oh dear. So there we were, minding our own business on a Sunday evening, when out comes the deputy prime minister with a pretty startling admission - "indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct reached my office in 2008" - that seem to contradict his earlier denials of having had any knowledge of claims of sexual misconduct against the senior Lib Dem peer. Clegg flew back to the UK from a half-term holiday in Spain with his family to proclaim that he would "not stand by and allow my party to be subject to a show trial of innuendo, half-truths and slurs".

But the Lib Dem leader has turned a controversy over alleged sexual harassment into, basically, a Lib Dem leadership crisis - perhaps the worst of his political career. Speaking on Radio Solent this morning, Clegg said he "feels for" the women who have come forward but said "until last week... no very specific allegations were put to me...now that those general concerns have evolved into specific concerns we can act and we will".

This morning's front pages have gone for Clegg's jugular:

"Revealed: The Damning New Claim Against Nick Clegg" (Telegraph)

"Clegg Says He Knew Of Sex Claims About Peer" (Times)

"Clegg: I Did Know About Sex Claims" (Independent)

"Clegg Admits He Knew About Sex Claims" (Guardian)

"Clegg: I Did Know About Lord Grope" (Daily Mirror)

As is so often the case when it comes to the Lib Dems, the most damning splash is on the front of the Daily Mail:

"Weasel words: Clegg insisted he didn't know about sex allegations against peer. Now he admits he ordered probe FIVE YEARS ago into 'non specific' claims of assaults Now Lib Dems face a police probe."

The paper notes how the Lib Dem leader dumped the current chief secretary to the Treasury right in it: "In a stunning about-face, Mr Clegg said he asked his chief of staff, Danny Alexander, to probe ‘concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct’ in 2008."

The Telegraph reports:

"Mr Clegg’s predecessors as party leader, Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, could also be asked whether any concerns about Lord Rennard had been raised with them.

"... However party insiders have told The Telegraph that 'at least a dozen women' could have been the subject of the peer's attention."

It ain't looking good for the coalition's junior partner - and this story is going to run and run. "The Lib Dems' attempt last week to insulate Clegg and set up an internal inquiry smacked of a bid to sweep the controversy back under a carpet," writes Kevin Maguire in today's Mirror. "It's been blindingly obvious since the US Watergate scandal that any hint of a cover-up can be more dangerous than the original crime."

Meanwhile, senior Lib Dems are queueing up to plead ignorance. "I knew of no reports that suggested Chris Rennard resigned for anything other than health reasons," the party's deputy leader Simon Hughes said on BBC Breakfast this morning. Pressed on whether he was aware of complaints against Rennard, Vince Cable told the Marr programme yesterday: "Absolutely not."

And it has to be pointed out, of course, that Lord Rennard has strenuously denied all of the allegations made against him.

2) LET'S TRY AGAIN

If you think the Rennard affair is the only scandal harming the Lib Dems right now, think again.

From the Telegraph:

"The retrial begins today of Vicky Pryce, 60, after the jury was discharged for failing to reach a verdict in her trial for perverting the course of justice by taking speeding points for ex–husband Chris Huhne."

3) EYE ON EASTLEIGH

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems remain bullish about their prospects for victory in Eastleigh - the Times quotes a senior pary figure, speaking off the record:

“'If Chris Huhne lying isn’t going to derail us then a peer that very few people have heard of is not going to harm us,' he said.

"Although Mike Thornton, the Lib Dem candidate, remains the favourite to win the election, bookmakers have cut the odds of victory for the Conservatives after a new poll. The poll, conducted by Survation and published yesterday, showed the Tories with a four-point lead. Ladbrokes has slashed the odds of Maria Hutchings, the Conservative candidate, winning the seat from 5-1 to 5-2."

As the Independent's lead editorial notes, "It is difficult to overstate the significance of Thursday's by-election. The contest is still a hard-fought scrap between the Coalition partners with far-reaching implications for Britain's political landscape, up to the 2015 election and beyond." The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh agrees: "Thursday’s battle will seal the fate of either David Cameron or Nick Clegg and even perhaps the Coalition they lead. It could even hasten the General Election, officially fixed for May 2015, with devastating consequences for the Conservatives."

4) 'A DOWNGRADED CHANCELLOR'

The Rennard affair couldn't have come along at a better time for George Osborne. All eyes are on the Lib Dems, rather than the hapless chancellor of the exchequer who lost our economy's triple-A credit rating on Friday night.

Well, not all eyes. The FT splashes on "Osborne feels the heat over rating blow", noting how:

"George Osborne is under pressure from both sides of the coalition to change the government's economic plan after the UK's loss of its triple A credit rating prompted colleagues of the chancellor to question his economic credibility.

"... Tory MPs are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the chancellor's performance, with the 100-strong "No Turning Back" group of Thatcherite backbenchers spearheading a push for greater austerity to fund tax cuts.

"David Ruffley, a leading member of the group, said: 'Some of us would like him to cut public spending even more in order to fund tax cuts to inject a fiscal stimulus into the UK economy at the budget.'"

Cut spending even more? Really? Insanity, as Einstein is said to have once remarked, is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results.

"George Osborne is a bankrupt Chancellor of the Exchequer," says an irate editorial in the Mirror. "His failure to adopt a Plan B to make the economy grow is the political equivalent of banging his head against a brick wall... As it stands, he is a downgraded Chancellor."

In its lead editorial, however, the Times - home to key Osborne ally, Danny Finkelstein - says "the problem is not that the strategy laid out by the coalition in 2010 was wrong. It is that the Government has failed to implement that strategy with sufficient vigour and political courage".

If. You. Say. So.

5) GAY MARRIAGE REVOLT, PART 68

First we discovered that Dave was having difficulties persuading his mother to back his same-sex marriage bill; now we learn that he's lost the support of the chair of his own local party association. From the Telegraph:

"The chairman of David Cameron’s local Conservative association has resigned in protest at his support for gay marriage.

"Cicely Maunder, 64, has abandoned her party membership and a number of the executive committee in Chipping Norton are said to have joined her.

"The decision by Mrs Maunder will be embarrassing for the Prime Minister who has a home in his Witney Constituency not far from the town in Oxfordshire."

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of a kitten inside a... glass. Yes, a glass.

6) 'LISTENING TRIP'

Welcome to Britain, John! From the Times:

"John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State, is expected to focus on the Middle East on his inaugural world tour, which kicked off in London last night.

"Syria will be on the menu at a breakfast meeting with David Cameron this morning, but talks with the Prime Minister and later with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, are also expected to touch on the Falklands.

Mr Kerry's ten-day tour is billed as a "listening trip" but already it is becoming clear that the new Secretary of State will run up against problems: the reluctance of the Syrian opposition to trust a White House that has vetoed arms deliveries, the limits of diplomacy in persuading Iran to drop its pursuit of a nuclear bomb, and European reluctance to spend more on defence. It will also take up the British call for faster progress on reaching a Middle East peace settlement, with an eye to President Obama's trip to Israel in March.

The paper notes that "Mr Kerry has an edge over his European counterparts because, unlike many of them, he has met President Assad on several occasions".

7) THE LOST WAR

More good news from the 'good war' in Afghanistan - via tonight's BBC Panorama:

"Shocking revelations of murder, sexual abuse of young boys, unarmed civilians being shot at, police officers high on drugs, and routine kidnaps and extortion are exposing the true state of Afghanistan's security forces in Helmand province.

"An investigation has revealed how Afghan forces running bases that British soldiers fought to secure are barely able to function – let alone pose a challenge to the Taliban."

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

"President Karzai yesterday ordered all US Special Forces out of a province bordering Kabul amid allegations that Afghans working with them are involved in murder and torture."

"In a test of his power over the Nato-led mission, the President issued his directive after several months of complaints about US-sponsored militias roaming unchecked in Wardak. They are alleged to have cut a student’s throat and made nine people disappear."

Are you 'listening', Mr Kerry?

8) 'HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION'

That's the title of a new and damning study from the Electoral Reform Society on last November's police and crime commissioner elections - described as a multimillionpound "debacle"

The Guardian reports:

"Nearly 90% of voters in England and Wales have no idea who their police and crime commissioner is despite November's first direct elections, which cost £75m. A study by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) shows the elections, which recorded the lowest turnout in peacetime history, were poorly delivered and had failed candidates and voters. Voters were left in the dark about who they could vote for, while candidates were kept away by huge deposits, unclear eligibility rules, vast electoral districts and high campaign costs."

9) MOVE TO WALES, SAVE MONEY

Desperate times call for desperate measures. From the Independent's front page:

"Taxpayers could be given a discount for living and working in Wales, as part of attempts to boost the country's underdeveloped economy.

"The British Government spends £18bn more on Wales every year than it gets back in tax - or £6,008 per head of the Welsh population. At present just one in 16 people earn more than £34,000 - the rate at which the higher 40 per cent tax band kicks in.

"Now, The Independent understands, the Treasury is proposing to allow the Welsh Assembly taxation powers that would allow it to vary the rates of tax that apply to people who live and work in Wales."

10) AN OSCAR FOR LINCOLN

Woo-hoo! Daniel Day-Lewis's superb portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln, in the Steven Spielberg biopic of the same name, ensured the British-born star become the first person to win the best actor Oscar for the third time at last night's Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

The HuffPost UK's full report on last night's Oscars, and full list of winners and runners-up, is here.

My recent New Statesman column on what Obama can learn from Lincoln is here.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From yesterday's 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

@iainmartin1 Chris Huhne down and out, Nick Clegg auditioning for part of Richard Nixon. Vince Cable... pondering...

@toryjim So Nick Clegg might have known something but didn't know what that something that he might have known but didn't know was.

@davidschneider Keen to get to truth of Rennard affair, Clegg launches full inquiry supervised by the Vatican.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, says: "The Lib Dems' handling of harassment claims has so far been shameful. Their inquiries had best follow their brief – and dig."

Stephen Glover, writing in the Daily Mail, says: "Pity the voters who trusted the REAL 'nasty party'".

Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta, writing in the Times, says: "Our people have an improving economy at home. They don’t need to come to Britain."

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