Liam Fox – What Are The ‘Underlying Issues’
Liam Fox has blamed the furore surrounding Adam Werritty on “underlying issues”. What might those be? To attempt to answer that, you have to go back quite a long way…

One night in May 2010, journalists were standing at a bar near the Houses of Parliament, staring up at the rolling news on the overhead TV screen. It was getting late, and not far from where the hacks were standing, David Cameron was putting the finishing touches to his first cabinet. Nearly all of the major offices had been allocated, and Fox didn’t seem have a place, so far.

His absence in the cabinet was causing people to gossip. Did he have a place or didn’t he? Within half an hour Sky News was announcing he’d been appointed Defence Secretary. Why it took Cameron so long to announce Fox’s appointment could be irrelevant, but could equally be instructive.

It seems unlikely that the hesitation was down to Liam Fox’s challenge for the Tory leadership in 2005, just as it seems pure co-incidence that the most beleaguered Tory Cabinet ministers – Liam Fox and Ken Clarke – challenged David Cameron in that election.

There also seems no doubt that Liam Fox had the ministerial credentials required for cabinet. He’d been a leading Tory light for many years, having served as shadow foreign and shadow defence secretary in opposition. He is considered one of the darlings of the right of the party, and as such someone who would provide balance in a coalition cabinet about to be populated by several Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps David Cameron knew at the time that Liam Fox would provide headaches in the months to come. Maybe he didn’t trust Fox, and suspected stories such as the leaked letters about defence cuts would inevitably happen.

What seems clear is that in recent weeks Liam Fox has manoeuvred himself into a position where he is disliked both at Number 10 and also at the MOD – a precarious place to be. A few days ago he attacked his own department in a Guardian interview, where he said MOD chiefs had to take a share of the blame for the cuts to the defence budget. He’s also spoken slightly out of turn, declaring Tony Blair an unsuitable person to represent the Quartet striving for peace in the Middle East.

Many Tories might be dismayed that Downing Street has sent very ambivalent messages surrounding Liam Fox when it has allowed Chris Huhne to remain in post, despite a summer of allegations surrounding speeding tickets. Indeed Huhne currently appears to be benefiting from the storm of controversy surrounding Dr. Fox, so much so that Huhne’s recent gaffe on Twitter – seemingly attempting to manage a news story using direct messages – is barely registering on the news radar.

There are some key differences between the allegations facing Fox and Huhne. The process Huhne is facing is potentially criminal, whereas Fox’s investigation is ministerial. The more significant difference is that the allegations against Huhne don’t involve alleged breaches of national security, and those surrounding Fox do.

There may be another consideration, one which permeates political blogs and social networks but is only obliquely referred to in the national press. Innuendo has surrounded Dr. Fox for many years. None of us at Huffpost UK have any idea whether or not the long running, bubbling rumours – which you can Google for yourself quite easily – are true.

We don’t particularly care, either, but they are commonly spouted out at Westminster and come from a variety of sources. Fox touched on them briefly in 2005 when he got married, shortly before running for the Tory party leadership.

The innuendos are back. The Fleet Street motif “close friend” regarding Adam Werritty has echoes of a bygone era, and the Independent On Sunday went one step further, using the quite flowery headline: “How the odd couple’s relationship blossomed over more than a decade”. Even before the latest storm of controversy, hacks were having fun with curious turns of phrase when writing stories about Liam Fox.

Were these innuendoes part of the “underlying issues” Fox spoke of on Sunday, when he issued a robust defence of his activities? Or are these issues actually to do with his waning popularity and trust among both senior MOD staff and Number 10?

Or is the only real issue that Liam Fox has been incredibly stupid? On the face of it the specific allegations surrounding Dr. Fox and Adam Werritty, if true, would be a breach of the ministerial code [PDF] and could easily be grounds for a resignation.

The ministerial code states:

All appointments, including exceptions to this rule, require the prior written approval of the Prime Minister, and no commitments to make such appointments should be entered into in the absence of such approval. All special advisers will be appointed under terms and conditions set out in the Model Contract for Special Advisers and the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers.

Yet other ministers have appeared to breach other aspects of the ministerial code before and survived the chop.

When asked about the Fox controversy on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, former PM Sir John Major said:

“It’s extremely difficult to handle these. Either natural justice requires you wait a long time, and you’re then said to be incapable of making decisions if you operate under natural justice, or you move too speedily and you’re said to be ruthless. The Prime Minister has asked for the facts, to have a first look on Monday, and that is right.”

But the fact we’re getting statements from Downing Street saying: “While the facts are being established the prime minister remains supportive of the defence secretary” suggests there is more going on behind the scenes than we’ve so far been told. Exactly which of the factors outlined above are really in play is difficult to say. But unless David Cameron can show that national security has been breached by the case of Adam Werritty, it’s looking difficult for him to sack Liam Fox cleanly, particularly given his popularity on the right of the Conservative party.

That section of Tory MPs are already angry and upset at what they see as the Lib Dem tail wagging the Tory dog.