The feeding frenzy over Liam Fox tells us a great deal more about what is wrong with the
Conservative Party than it does about Dr. Fox. The Defence Secretary has been an ass. He admits that he allowed “distinctions to be blurred” between his “professional
responsibilities and [his] personal loyalties to a friend”. But if someone has known you and counselled you and worked for you over the years it is all but impossible to maintain such
distinctions when you are in power. You just have to cut them off, brutally. Fox’s biggest weakness, and one which was well known before this, is that he is too kind. You might say he is too
human. It made him a good doctor. But in the higher echelons of politics or business it is a fault. Against that, Fox is brave and highly principled. He is also unswervingly personally honest
— a point which incidentally, albeit tacitly, is assumed by his harshest public critics.
What can be said against him is that, as Defence Secretary, Fox has played his full part in cutting Britain’s defence establishment in a manner that he would not have envisaged when in
Opposition, and which he must surely know in his heart is wrong. This is, indeed, a serious matter, far more serious than who he met on a trip to Dubai. Perhaps he should have resigned when told to
make defence cuts. But he is ambitious and he did not. He is also historically in good company. In the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher (along with Keith Joseph) subordinated her instinctive
convictions and stayed in office, while Edward Heath embarked on a collectivist economic experiment whose disastrous effects she would spend years later having to repair. She hung on and she saved
This Thatcher connection goes beyond the circumstantial parallel. Liam Fox is, in fact, the only recognisably Thatcherite Conservative in the Cabinet. He places a Scottish libertarian imprint on
her philosophy, but despite all pressure to do so, he has never wavered in his belief that her years in government provide a model to restore Britain’s fortunes. Moreover, Fox is not a Right
Wing dullard. He is clever, articulate, funny, presentable and popular, at least outside Westminster, and if he, rather than David Davis, had squeezed into the final round of the leadership contest
with David Cameron he could well have won.
And the modernising faction, who controls the party today, cannot forget this. Fox is dangerous to them. If Cameron were to fall, Fox, not Osborne or some other malleably plastic figure, could take
Hence the cat and mouse game played by No. 10. Whether it would be better to keep him, weakened and humiliated, and so biddable (like poor William Hague), or whether it would be better to discard
Fox altogether, must be the primary question in the leadership’s mind.
But the leadership should be careful. Randolph Churchill coined the phrase “the Eden Terror” to describe the fear that Anthony Eden’s irascible whims imposed on the party and the
Tory press. Terror is unstable and Eden’s rule proved fragile. The recognisably acrid smell of fear is perceptible now. No one, it seems, will speak out for Fox, because no one wants to
displease what are assumed to be the unexpressed wishes of No 10.
So Tory MPs face a choice. This afternoon and in succeeding days those in the parliamentary party who do not wish it to be turned into a social liberal party without roots, traditions or a sense of
national destiny ought to speak out. And even the party managers might be advised to have second thoughts. If conservatism — on Europe, immigration, tax, marriage, law and order and much else
— is finally seen to have no place at the top of the party, many with conservative views and instincts may go elsewhere. History shows that it is remarkably easy to lose elections.
Robin Harris is a former member of the Conservative Research Department and Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit.Tags: Conservatives, David Cameron, Defence, George Osborne, Liam Fox, Margaret Thatcher, Scandal, Social conservatism, Thatcherism