The Liberal Democrat peer at the centre of sexual harassment allegations has threatened legal action against the party after being suspended pending new disciplinary proceedings.
Former Lib Dem chief executive Lord (Chris) Rennard is facing investigation for bringing the party into disrepute by refusing to apologise to four women who complained about his behaviour, as recommended by an independent report which found last week that the allegations were credible but could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
In a lengthy and impassioned statement, Lord Rennard voiced his "regret" if the women had been hurt, embarrassed or upset by anything he did, but said he would not apologise for something he had not done, as it could leave him "defenceless" in any future civil action.
His dramatic suspension averted a potential test of the authority of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, coming minutes before Lord Rennard was expected to attempt to return to his place on the party benches in the Upper House.
It was announced that the regional parties committee, which oversees Lib Dem disciplinary procedures, agreed at a meeting this morning to suspend his membership while he is investigated for bringing the party into disrepute.
A spokesman for Lord Rennard described the committee's decision as "extraordinary" and said the peer was "taking legal advice with a view to civil action against the party".
The spokesman added: "Lord Rennard would like proper consideration to be given to the statement that he made earlier today before there is any further action.
"He does not wish to see legal action between fellow Liberal Democrats, but his membership of the party matters more to him than anything apart from family and friends. Indeed he feels that the party is also his family.
"He believes that the suspension of his membership announced this morning should be lifted, that the party should now give him the report to which he is entitled and that Liberal Democrats should act in the best spirits of the party that he joined as a teenager."
Lord Rennard said he was "enormously distressed" by the escalating row and was too unwell to attend Parliament today.
He voluntarily withdrew from the Liberal Democrat benches while barrister Alistair Webster conducted his inquiry, but said chief whip Lord Newby had confirmed he was being readmitted following its conclusion last Wednesday. He had been expected to take his seat on the red benches alongside fellow Lib Dem peers today.
Mr Clegg set up a potential clash with his own peers - many of whom are known to sympathise with Lord Rennard - in a round of broadcast interviews this morning, in which he said he should not return to the Upper House until he said sorry, saying bluntly: "No apology, no whip."
The leader said Lord Rennard should apologise as a matter of "basic decency", and said re admitting him to the parliamentary party without such an apology would be "in defiance" of his authority.
But he acknowledged he did not have the power to block Lord Rennard's return, thanks to party rules which give the final decision on the withdrawal of the whip to a vote of the 99 Liberal Democrat peers.
His suspension was welcomed by Bridget Harris, one of the women who alleged she was harassed.
"I think Nick felt deeply responsible that all of this happened and technically, on paper, it felt like there was very little the leadership could do," Ms Harris, a former aide to the Lib Dem leader, told Sky News.
"But actually, as it has turned out today, there is something we can do. We can send a strong message that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated."
Lord Rennard said the party leadership had been "unwise" to demand an apology from him, and urged them to "let the matter rest".
In a statement of more than 2,600 words, the peer - who has worked for the party for 27 years and has been a member for 40 - said: "Courtesy has always been an essential part of my moral compass.
"If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset. But for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean."
Lord Rennard said he was told by Mr Webster last Wednesday that he had concluded there should be no further action against him. But he said the party had acted contrary to its own rules by refusing to give him a copy of the report.
"I have not spoken to, met with, or heard from Nick Clegg in 11 months," said Lord Rennard. "I would ask him, now that he has more knowledge of the facts, to ask for any threat to me to be withdrawn and to insist that I see the report, to which I am entitled, and to let me help him and my party again in future."
Lord Rennard said the strain of being chief executive, as well as a parliamentary investigation which cleared him of abusing expenses in 2009, had caused him "severe stress, anxiety and depression" and damaged his health. On learning of the allegations of improper behaviour towards women, he said that "the depth of depression I felt and the consideration of self-harm is difficult to describe".
Lib Dem president Tim Farron acknowledged
that the allegations "were not dealt with properly" when they emerged in 2010.
"I think that Lord Rennard and the four women in question are owed an apology because rumours circulated, and indeed complaints have been made, and were allowed to fester," Mr Farron told BBC Radio 4's PM. "It was not fair to him that they were not dealt with properly at the time but it definitely wasn't fair to the women."
Mr Farron said it was "only right and proper" that Lord Rennard now apologise, saying his concern about exposing himself to a possible civil action was "a red herring".
"Two of the women in question have been very clear today and stated that they had absolutely no intention of pursuing a civil case against Lord Rennard and they simply wanted an apology," he said. " There is a conclusion to this which would be much less messy if only he would do what is perfectly reasonable."
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said Mr Clegg had made "an absolute pig's ear" of the issue.
She told Sky News: "I think it's been a terrible muddle. My sympathy is with those women who have complained and are left hanging."
Lib Dem peer Lord Greaves warned the party faced a massive internal crisis, and said it should set up a Northern Ireland-style "peace and reconciliation process" or face being badly damaged "for a generation".
"There is a huge chasm and each side is standing behind their own lines chucking grenades at the other and there is absolutely no dialogue going on," he told BBC2's Daily Politics.
Lib Dem international development minister Lynne Featherstone said Lord Rennard's expression of regret was not enough to bring matters to a conclusion.
"I am very sorry for Chris personally," said Ms Featherstone. "He is clearly in deep distress over this, but so are the women who have suffered over the years. On my part, I think an apology is in order and I think this is the inevitable ending to a procedure that has been protracted and to some extent unnecessary."
Elizabeth Peplow, former director of press and broadcasting for the Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, said: "The party has seriously lost its compass over this issue in the absence of any clear leadership which should have acted more swiftly and boldly to protect both the interests of the accused and the accusers.
"Rather than get at the truth, the party machine seems to have been blinded by what seems from the sidelines as a 'get Rennard' campaign.
"The party president's admission (on the PM programme) that he had spoken to 'the women' but not to Chris Rennard typifies this in a way which, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case, leaves a sour taste and smacks of the kangaroo court Tim Farron said the party could not be accused of.
"The failure to allow Chris Rennard access to the report on him flies in the face of the laws of natural justice and has been compounded by the lack of any attempt to fully reflect on and accept at face value the regret his statement expresses at any hurt caused. To continue to press him to apologise further to allegations in a report he has not seen is ludicrous.
"Most fundamentally, there has been an extraordinary failure to communicate the principles of the lessons learned or advance conciliation in a way that would have helped both sides and ensures the party moves on properly.
"What is being done for instance to address the claim one of the women concerned has made that there were 10 Lib Dem MPs who made unwanted advances while she was working in the Lib Dem whips' office?
"Instead, in the absence of proper leadership, Chris Rennard has been thrown to trial by social media and treated with breathtaking illiberality by a party that prides itself on putting fairness at the heart of everything it does, but in fact has revealed a nasty, vicious core and of which, right now, I feel ashamed to be a member."