The seemingly inevitable resignation has finally been announced. Dr Liam Fox has resigned as defence secretary in the wake of a series of allegations and an investigation into his working relationship with former housemate Adam Werrity.
In one of the least unexpected resignation statements in political history, Dr Fox admitted he had “mistakenly allowed the distinction between personal interest and government activities to become blurred”. That certainly is one diplomatic way of admitting his guilt in allowing a friend and self-styled “advisor” to accompany him on at least 18 foreign trips. What it is not is an apology; nor does it answer crucial and necessary questions about Fox’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka.
In recent days accusations of impropriety and inappropriate activity on the part of Mr Werrity have increased. Not only has this man clearly and dishonestly masqueraded as an official advisor to a cabinet minister, serious questions have been raised about those funding him and his links to party donors. Whatever Dr Fox’s role in this shambolic deception, there can be no denying that Werrity was never anything more than a friend of the defence secretary, and that his egomaniacal and vanity-feulled conduct essentially constitutes fraud. As The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh observes, Werrity “had a role in the life of Dr Fox which was not appropriate for a serving secretary of state". It is hard to disagree.
At best, Dr Fox has been unwise in his choice of friends. In all likelihood, he is also guilty of breaking the ministerial code and being less than honest about his relationship with Mr Werrity and how it impacted on his decision-making. He may also be guilty of perjury. I am in agreement with Labour’s Jim Murphy MP who asserts that “this issue has centred solely on [Fox’s] judgment and his conduct in one of the most serious jobs in the country. With so much at stake for our forces the defence secretary must be focused solely on his public duties.”
Murphy is also within his rights to point out that the Prime Minster has visibly been attempting to keep Dr Fox in his job. There are a number of reasons why David Cameron has been keen to do this. Firstly, he had little wish to be forced into a cabinet reshuffle so soon; secondly, dismissing Fox could alienate the Tories’ right wingers who saw Fox as a champion of their rather narrow political perspectives; thirdly, and most crucially, Cameron had wanted to establish key facts via Gus O’Donnell’s investigation before making a judgment on Fox’s fitness for office. But his political judgement was appalling simply because he failed to appreciate that, with so many serious misjudgements and breaches of ministerial standards on Fox’s part, the end was never in doubt. The Prime Minister seemed to think that keeping Fox in office would alleviate the pressure on the defence secretary, when in actual fact more and more damaging allegations were appearing on a daily basis.
As the saga continued to dominate headlines and undermine both Dr Fox’s position and the government’s credibility, the resignation became not only inevitable but necessary. Strangely, aside from the Prime Minister many other Tories didn’t recognise this and have expressed disappointment at his departure. Louise Mensch, for example, used twitter to broadcast her view that “[Fox] was an outstanding Secretary of State for Defence and a completely dedicated minister” while Peter Bone argued that "it's typical of Liam to put the country first" by resigning. "I think it was largely a media-driven [story]. I didn't see the hanging offence, I'm afraid." I can only suppose that Peter Bone is either politically naive, wilfully blind or both.
If it was right for David Laws to have resigned in May 2010, then it was unquestionably right for Liam Fox to have resigned today. He had nowhere else to turn. Jim Murphy made a point of emphasising that he did not call for Fox’s resignation - but that must in part be due to the fact that he didn’t have to given the pressure from the media. Murphy also stated that he “feels sorry for Liam as a person”, which is more than I do. I feel little other than a sense that Fox has reaped what he has sown, as well as some relief that the most objectionable member of the cabinet apart from Teresa May will be finding a new home on the backbenches.
Jim Murphy is, however, absolutely right when he calls for answers. The resignation itself does not close the door on the affair. Questions must be asked about why and for how long the minister was able to behave like this. Fox’s activities in Sri Lanka and allegations of “maverick” foreign policy must also be made clear, as well as detailed information about who knew what – including the civil service. The establishment of truth is far more important that a high profile resignation.
What I would also say in response to Peter Bone is this: there is nothing typical about Fox putting the country first. It seems, if the allegations made contain even the smallest grain of truth, that he has put his own interests and those of his friend above those not only of the country but also those of parliament, his party and the cabinet. As for Louise Mensch’s assessment of his performance as “outstanding”, I beg to differ. This was a man who presided over a rushed and ill-conceived defence review, marked by short-termist decision making – somehow, I can’t see the personnel of RAF Leuchars and Lossiemouth or the people of Fife being quite so impressed by his uncompromising stance and poor strategy, which Menzies Campbell described as “wrong and inept”.
Can I allow Sir Ming to write Fox’s epitaph: “Liam Fox, wrong and inept”. It seems quite fitting in the circumstances...