LONDON: British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted on Wednesday that "very serious mistakes" were made over a sex scandal which has rocked his Liberal Democrat party ahead of a crucial by-election.
Clegg repeated his insistence that he was unaware of allegations of sexual harassment by several female party workers against former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Chris Rennard until they emerged last week.
But he conceded that rumours about the behaviour of Rennard -- who strongly denies groping the women -- had been "in the background" of the peer's resignation due to ill-health in 2009.
The Lib Dems, the junior coalition partners in Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government, have launched two internal inquiries into the allegations and the police are also investigating whether crimes were committed.
"There were some very serious mistakes and the women were not listened to and were let down," Clegg said during his weekly phone-in on a London radio station.
He said that "clearly something went seriously wrong" in the Liberal Democrats because they failed to act upon complaints dating back several years, but insisted: "My party has nothing to hide, I have nothing to hide."
The Lib Dems have struggled to contain the media storm over the allegations and Clegg's leadership has been called into question following claim and counterclaim about what he knew and when.
The affair could not come at a worse time as the Lib Dems battle to retain their parliamentary seat in Eastleigh, southern England, in a by-election on Thursday which itself was sparked by another scandal.
The seat was vacated by Chris Huhne, a former Lib Dem energy minister who is likely to receive a jail sentence after pleading guilty to asking his wife to take speeding points on his behalf a decade ago, and then lying about it.
It is unclear how much of an impact the Rennard affair will have on the vote in Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems are in a tight race with the Tories.
But commentators say the scandal reveals serious weaknesses in Clegg's leadership and the structures of Britain's third political party which until the 2010 general election was a party of protest that had never before held power.
The Lib Dems have had their share of scandals -- an alcoholic former leader, fiddled parliamentary expenses, an MP's affair with a rent boy and the conviction of a major donor for fraud.
But somehow they managed to maintain the appearance of being above the mucky world of politics inhabited by the Tories and Labour.
The handling of the Rennard case has been widely condemned as a PR disaster, with senior Lib Dems saying one thing only to be contradicted by Clegg, who in turn made things worse by appearing to blame the media who broke the story.
Friends of Rennard told one newspaper that the allegations were being whipped up by critics who want to topple Clegg -- and certainly some commentators think the scandal could prove fatal for the Lib Dem leader.
Others have also questioned the timing of the revelations a week before the Eastleigh by-election, although some of Rennard's alleged victims say they spoke out because of fears he was about to return to a senior party role.
But a columnist wrote in the Times newspaper this week: "The real revelation of the lords-a-groping sex claims is that the Lib Dems failed the transparency test because they did not think they would ever have to sit it.
"They must now decide whether they want to be a party of government, with all the associated responsibilities, or whether they would prefer to go back to being a vehicle of protest for the disaffected and disappointed."