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Fox in the clear?

10 October 2011

11:01 PM

10 October 2011

11:01 PM

Liam Fox demonstrated today why he’ll be staying in Cabinet. He’s a tough, eloquent and
effective Commons performer who does not fall to pieces when the going gets tough. George Osborne and Michael Gove were both on the front bench with him. One MP told me he saw Eric Pickles in the
corridors, giving Fox a hug that almost killed him. All this reflects well on them: in politics, it’s always worth noting who stands by colleagues, and who scarpers, when it hits the fan. Fox has,
finally, made the two steps required to get on top of this scandal: an apology, and full disclosure to stop the drip, drip of allegations which was giving this story such lethal momentum.
Every politician has a best friend and confidante, but most put them on the government or party payroll and have done with it. Fox kept Werritty off the taxpayer’s account, but still kept him
around — with very messy results involving very many air miles. Somehow, Werrity managed to keep up with Fox’s exhaustive globetrotting and independently met up with the Defence
Secretary on trips to Singapore, Israel, Spain, Sri Lanka and seven times in the Gulf.

Yes, it looks odd. But what does it all amount to? On Twitter, people who don’t follow politics regularly are asking aloud what the big deal is. This isn’t to say Fox hasn’t screwed up — he
did, big time, and had much to apologise for. Adam Werritty should never have recommended that the Defence Secretary meet anyone, far less someone as toxic as Boulter. Fox should have had a civil
servant with him. He should never have bent the rules on something as hyper sensitive as arms procurement. And he’s paying for it now, given that Boulter has dragged him into this $30 million
blackmail lawsuit with 3M.
Today Fox was today helped immeasurably by Jim Murphy’s surprising uselessness on the attack. The Shadow Defence Secretary was so bad that a friend suggested it was some Scotia Nostra pact where
the Glasgow boy let the East Kilbride boy survive. What actually happened, I think, is that Fox finally, took this disaster seriously and that the Tory party displayed some tribal loyalty.

The newspapers will keep asking questions, most likely around those 18 trips that
Werritty took and who paid for them. Tomorrow’s Times finds that, far from making millions from all this, Werrity’s company took in just £20,000 in the past four years. So how did
he fund the travel?

But if nothing more significant comes out, then Fox will be safe to fight another day. And hopefully he will have learnt an important lesson: that the best place for a minister’s best friend is at
the end of a bar on a Friday night. As we have seen, anything else is asking for trouble.

UPDATE: When assessing whether Fox will go, CoffeeHousers should factor in that Cameron will do anything he can to avoid a reshuffle this year. From ‘97 to ‘07, any
reshuffle had to balance the Blairites and Brownites — relatively easy. In the coalition era, a reshuffle is a multi-dimensional balancing act with many other people needing to be moved.
Cameron has what I rather unkindly described as a “zombie Cabinet” of
ministers who are no longer trusted, but stay undead in their posts anyway. Move Fox, and you’d have to move a hell of a lot more. A more likely trigger for a reshuffle would be Huhne being
Paul, you make a valid point when you ask if political bias is clouding my view. The Spectator’s motto is ‘firm, but unfair’ and we apply it to all parties. I’m not a
Conservative member, but do consider this government infinitely better than Ed Miliband’s lot. Still, that shouldn’t contort what I judge as acceptable behaviour. My take is that I
think ministers should go if they are incompetent or bugger up reforms. Lansley, I think, is incompetent and should probably go. His inept stewardship of the Health Bill guarantees disaster —
and the end result may be a Dobson-era NHS. That will have far wider implications than an extra vodka martini served up in a Singapore hotel. Fox has wielded the scalpel at the MoD with reluctance
but with force: he is pretty good at his job.  Ideally, ministers should be sacked when demonstrated not to be good at their job. As Steve Richards argues
, government works better if ministers are not sacked for every screw-up.
If it emerges that Werrity was somehow selling access to the Defence Secretary — explicitly or implicitly — then that would be corrupt. The civil service has strong protections for
defence procurement, which should not be circumvented by a “private relationship”. As it stands, this all seems to be a case of Fox’s botched attempt to keep his best friend
nearby but off the taxpayer’s payroll.

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