Lord Rennard has had his suspension from the Liberal Democrats lifted after disciplinary action linked to allegations of pestering women was dropped. The party authorities decided not to proceed over allegations that the former chief executive had brought the Lib Dems into disrepute by failing to apologise.
A party spokesman said: "The Regional Parties Committee met this week to consider whether the party had been brought into disrepute by statements made by Lord Rennard, or on his behalf, following the publication of Alistair Webster's conclusions.
"It decided not to proceed with the disciplinary process against him. This brings the matter to a close and means the suspension of his membership is lifted."
Last year's independent investigation by Alistair Webster QC concluded that the evidence against Lord Rennard was "broadly credible", but said wrongdoing could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Mr Webster urged the peer to "reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused and that an apology would be appropriate".
However, Lord Rennard refused to say sorry immediately - complaining that he had not even been allowed to see the full version of the QC's report. He was suspended pending disciplinary action for bringing the party into disrepute by not heeding Mr Webster's suggestion. It was not until May that Lord Rennard paved the way for his reinstatement by conceding he may have "inadvertently" encroached upon "personal space", saying he wanted to "apologise sincerely for any such intrusion".
But the lifting of his suspension - allowing him to resume the Lib Dem whip in the Lords - is likely to anger critics who have been demanding his immediate expulsion. Party president Tim Farron said: "The Liberal Democrats have worked hard in the last 18 months to fundamentally change the way our party treats these matters.
"We asked Helena Morrissey to review our party's culture and practices and her report helped us to recognise our failings and set about correcting them. We have changed our rules and codes of conduct at every level, from grassroots members to parliamentarians so that everyone involved in the party is aware of their rights and responsibilities.
"We have changed how complaints are reported and addressed, and we have appointed a Pastoral Care Officer to help and advise those making a complaint. No one should ever have to feel that their concerns are being dismissed or ignored and I am clear that the Liberal Democrats should become the 'gold standard' for how voluntary organisations treat their members and staff."
Former Lib Dem activist Susan Gaszczak, who resigned from the party in July in protest at the failure to expel Lord Rennard, said the development showed she made the "right choice".
"Very glad I made the right choice in July, the @LibDems have told me I am credible but have no back bone, back to normal then," Ms Gaszczak posted on Twitter.
Very glad I made the right choice in July, the @LibDems have told me I am credible but have no back bone, back to normal then— Susan Gaszczak (@SusanGaszczak) August 19, 2014
Ms Gaszczak added: "The party democracy obviously has no moral compass. They say we are credible, then fail to act on it and don't see the impact this has on women and women voters."
She said she did not blame Mr Clegg, saying his "hands were tied" due to the party's rules. "I don't blame Nick for this," she said. "This is purely down to the English party and their rulings."
Gloria De Piero MP, Labour's Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, responded by accusing Clegg of failing to "do the right thing".
"Nick Clegg has sent a clear message to women voters - he is more interested in trying to salvage the Lib Dems fading election hopes than do the right thing by the women who made these serious complaints," she said. "Yet again he has failed to show any kind of leadership."
On Tuesday evening, Lord Rennard posted the following statement on Facebook:
However, former Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies said Lord Rennard's treatment had been "outrageous" and he had been portrayed as a "pantomime villain". "I think the way in which Chris Rennard has been treated is outrageous, absolutely outrageous," he said.
"This man has been singled out and pilloried for month after month. It has been like the Salem witch trials. I am delighted that at long last justice has been done. Very senior people in the party have spoken out of turn, to say the least. They should have read the Webster report and recognised that people are innocent until proven guilty."
Mr Clegg said in a statement:
The Liberal Democrats have taken a long, hard look in the mirror since these allegations were made last year and I am confident that the party has changed. It is clear that a number of women in our party felt let down that the party failed to act on their complaints appropriately. I am determined that no member of our party should find themselves in that position again.
That's why I immediately appointed Helena Morrissey to carry out a root and branch review of our culture and processes and made sure we acted on her recommendations.
In addition, at my request the Party President and the Federal Executive established a review into our procedures for handling cases such as this to ensure that the party's rules are fit for purpose in the future. This review has now been completed by a senior barrister who has recommended that we make changes to the current criminal burden of proof and these changes will now be taken forward.