Paddy Ashdown admits he knew of Lord Rennard allegations

Former Lib Dem leader said he heard 'Westminster rumours' before they became public but not when he was party head

The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has conceded he heard of the allegations made against Lord Rennard before they were made public last week.

Lord Ashdown emphasised that no claims about the party's former chief executive reached him when he headed the Lib Dems during the late 1980s and 1990s.

But during a campaigning visit to Eastleigh, where a byelection is being held on Thursday, Ashdown said he had "picked up the Westminster rumours in the build-up" to the Channel 4 programme when the allegations were aired.

He added: "Did I ever hear anything about Chris Rennard when I was leader? Not a thing. But they are serious allegations, there are serious questions to be answered."

Ashdown batted away questions about Nick Clegg's leadership. He said: "I'm devoted to Nick Clegg. I think he's an outstanding leader." But he admitted he could not think of a byelection run in such difficult circumstances. "This is really tight, really really tight. I don't know how this is going to swing, and there's a lot of factors that could affect it."

During a walkabout in Eastleigh with the Lib Dem candidate, Mike Thornton, voters told Ashdown they were interested in issues such as local jobs, housing developments and the quality of schools. Nobody asked him about Rennard or Clegg.

He was heckled by one former Lib Dem voter, library worker Jayne Perkins, who shouted at the Lib Dem entourage: "Thank you so much for lying to the people of Eastleigh."

She told the Guardian she and her husband, railway worker Steve Oram, had voted tactically at the 2010 general election for the Lib Dems to keep the Tories out. "They then went with the Tories and agreed with all their policies. I hate it. I voted tactically because I didn't want the Tories to win. I'm burnt out with this election."

Thornton said he had never heard of the Rennard claims, and had not even met him. Thornton insisted that the Lib Dems were still trusted in Eastleigh, where they run the borough council, because of their strong local record.

Immigration may be the key issue before polling day.

The Tories were delivering a leaflet on behalf of their candidate, Maria Hutchings, flagging up what they claim are attempts by Clegg's party to block "David Cameron's plan for a cap on immigration".

Ukip have been handing out a bulletin warning: "From January 1 2014 Britain's borders will open to 29m Bulgarians and Romanians." It adds: "This is going to put even more pressure on British jobs, housing, schools and the NHS." Ukip strategists believe the party could enjoy its best byelection result.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper were in Eastleigh to support Labour candidate John O'Farrell. Labour unveiled a poster bearing the slogan: "Tory? Lib Dem? They're just the same now."


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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