The Liberal Democrat party is on the brink of a bloody civil war over allegations of sexual harassment against its most pivotal figure, Lord Rennard, which has already undermined the leadership credibility of leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Party bosses have suspended the peer pending the outcome of a short, sharp disciplinary investigation after he flatly refused to apologise to a number of women at the centre of the harassment claims.

If the inquiry finds he has brought the Liberal Democrats into disrepute it is likely he will be kicked out of the party he was instrumental in transforming from a near-irrelevant fringe group into the significant political force it now is.

And that could lead to a full legal battle if Rennard carries through his "see you in court" threat, claiming he has not been found guilty of any offence by either police or previous internal party investigations.

For a party that has had more than its share of scandals, this ranks as one of the most potentially devastating. It has already seen opposing factions lining up against each other and indulging in a highly-charged and bitter war of words.

Clegg has been accused of "cowardice" for failing to take the original accusations seriously enough, or taking any action when things escalated.

In his own lengthy statement, Rennard claims he cannot apologise, as urged by the internal inquiry, because that would open him up to legal action. And he talks of a smear campaign against him going back almost five years and of the: "depth of depression that I felt and the consideration of self harm".

He says he was the victim of "a lynch mob mentality from some in the party" and reveals: "I have not spoken to, met with, or heard from Nick Clegg in eleven months. I would ask him, now that he has more knowledge of the facts, to ask for any threat to me to be withdrawn."

Clegg has persistently claimed his hands were tied by party rules, but that has seen him accused of failing to get a grip on a situation which would not have been allowed to fester for so long by any other party.

Supporters of Rennard have been withering in their attacks on the leadership. Euro MP Chris Davies, for example, claimed the way the peer had been treated would have been enough to drive some people close to suicide.

Others have accused Clegg of being behind a witch hunt worthy of the Ku Klux Klan or North Korea.

Others have been just as blistering in their accusations of lack of action and cover-up by the leadership. Two of the women involved have quit the party and one, Bridget Harris, tweeted: "for the Lib Dems to have a future credible voice on equalities or women, it is untenable to imagine Lord Rennard can remain on their benches".

The repercussions for the party's electoral prospects, already in doubt because of its role in the coalition government and broken election promises, are unforeseeable and any hopes this might be kicked into the long grass or ended without any bitterness are long gone.

And all over the behaviour of a man virtually no one outside the Westminster village has ever heard of.