The former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has admitted his party is suffering the "excruciating" pain of being found wanting in its support for women's rights.
But he has also defended Nick Clegg's handling of the crisis that has swept the party in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard.
Writing in the Guardian, Ashdown said the party has suffered a perfect storm in which the rightwing press has held all the thunderbolts, but he urged Lib Dems not to panic under fire.
"Even if we had achieved presentational perfection in the face of the most ravenous media feeding frenzy I have ever experienced as a Lib Dem in 40 years of politics, it would have made no more than the merest scrap of difference to the outcome," Ashdown writes. Rennard was director of Lib Dem campaigns under Ashdown and later the party's chief executive.
Ashdown admits the party's pride has been badly hurt by the episode and many harsh lessons must be learned.
"As Liberals, we led in the cause of equality and respect for gender and sexual orientation long before it was fashionable and often against the ridicule of the very press that now attacks us.
"So, to have been found wanting (and perhaps worse) in the Lord Rennard case is excruciating to say the least."
Clegg has been criticised for changing his story about his knowledge of the alleged misbehaviour, for failing to react speedily and then for attacking some of the media for becoming "self-appointed detectives".
But Ashdown argues: "No matter what defences we had put up, no matter how we had explained ourselves, no matter how perfectly modulated our every phrase and rational our every explanation, this was a story that was going to run and run."
But Ashdown also praised the legitimate and effective journalism of Channel 4 and the coverage provided by some newspapers.
Like Clegg's office, he does not attach any blame for the crisis to "Conservative dirty tricks". Many Lib Dems instead suspect some of the detailed stories came not just from the aggrieved women, but from elsewhere within the party. Some of the alleged victims of the harassment have claimed their names were passed to the press without their knowledge.
Alison Smith, an Oxford University politics lecturer who led complaints of sexual harassment against Rennard, told the Guardian she was "very, very annoyed" by repeated media requests to go on the record about her complaints, despite the fact she had only spoken about the allegations privately.
"It was the breach of privacy that annoyed me. I had no idea who the people were who were putting it about. I felt quite demeaned because these were quite serious things that happened to us," she said.
Smith contacted the Metropolitan police with her complaints on Thursday, along with several other women, according to reports. "The police are very keen to deal with the matter discreetly, and I agree it is important that other people coming forward should be able to do so without fear of being caught up in the current media storm," she said.
Ashdown believes some rightwing newspapers pursued the issue so intensely because of the Eastleigh byelection. The story, he writes, "rolled up in a single attack three targets which they have long loved to hate: the Lib Dems, the coalition and finally (and for them most deliciously) the Leveson proposals [on press regulation]. That's why they have devoted so many column inches, so much invective and such lipsmacking relish to the task".
Ashdown has said he knew nothing of the charges until Channel 4 raised them and has only known Rennard as "an outstanding and admired servant of the party".