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Not just a wily Fox, but a watchful hawk with time on his side

3 June 2011

1:06 PM

3 June 2011

1:06 PM

Liam Fox is fond of reminding us that he didn’t come into politics to cut the
armed forces. A wistful look falls across his face when he says it – an indication of frustration as much as sincerity, a sense deepened by his letter of concern about the government spending so much more on
international development.

Opponents of Fox might characterise this as hypocrisy: he would reduce the size of the state without touching the armed forces, they say. His enemies in the Conservative party say that it’s
typical of this “clever fool’s” intellectual indiscipline. Fox the military and fiscal hawk wants to “have it both ways”.

The Economist has an essential profile of the defence secretary, which argues that Fox’s position is a choice not a
contradiction. Fox is a self-anointed standard bearer of the right and his politics are anything but incoherent. Cast you mind back several weeks to that thoughtful speech Fox gave on debt as a
national security concern. Might the robustly Conservative Fox cut further and faster to reduce the
burden of debt? One suspects that he almost certainly would.

His relationship with the Cameroons has always been uneasy. Aside from their politics, there is an obvious presentational tension between the comprehensively educated Scot and the array of 
English advantage at the top. Fox embodies the aspiring voter and I doubt he’s missed that coincidence.

The Economist says that Fox still has leadership ambitions. Certainly, he works the tea rooms and bars with affable cunning. He charms select committees, where, naturally, he tells the likes of
Bernard Jenkin and James Arbuthnot that he’s doing his best to protect the forces – and the forces are grateful, apparently. He often uses more direct means to communicate with
backbenchers and the wider party. In the past, he has been accompanied by backbenchers to Washington, where they met with prominent Republicans. And, as James reported in the Mail on Sunday, Fox’s appointment of Lord Ashcroft to decide the fate of Britain’s
military bases in Cyprus has unnerved Downing Street, who are wary of this axis.

Perhaps this explains why Fox is thought to be unsackable. Even beyond the context of coalition, it would be expedient to trap him in Cabinet rather than free him onto the backbenches. Besides,
Fox’s opponent, Jim Murphy, has the easy task of attacking a right-winger overseeing substantial defence cuts at a time of conflict: it is not the position from which to launch an
anti-modernising counter-revolution. But, as the dutiful sounding defence secretary says, he wouldn’t have it this way, and you believe that he wants to set that right. At 49, Fox has that
most precious of all political commodities: time.

UPDATE: I’m told that the appointment of Lord Ashcroft had the full approval of the Prime Minister.

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