UK defence minister resigns over best man row

Liam Fox has resigned over a conflict between private friendship and public duty. But many are now asking if the real story is about 'crony capitalism' at the heart of government.

It took a week of mounting political and media pressure over his friendship with the mercurial figure of his best man, Adam Werritty. And then on Friday, Liam Fox, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, and the man responsible for running two wars – one in Libya and one in Afghanistan – resigned, mission very much not accomplished.

He is the first cabinet minister to resign from David Cameron's government. Surprisingly, he is also the first ever defence secretary to be forced to resign because of a scandal. The nearest rival to that claim was Jack Profumo, who resigned in 1963 after lying to parliament over an affair. But he was Secretary of State for War, not Defence.

Why did Fox have to go? There are two reasons: a technical reason and a broader political reason. The government will focus on the former, while the media focuses on the latter.

Technically, Fox is being investigated for breaking section seven of the powerful Ministerial Code, which sets out the rules for government ministers on avoiding any conflict between public duty and private interests. It has emerged that Werritty met Fox 22 times at the Ministry of Defence and joined him on 18 overseas trips since he came to office last year – despite having no official role. Fox knew the investigation would judge him harshly on this and resigned in advance.

Politically there is a bigger reason why some might be desperate to paint Liam Fox as a maverick and a chancer and have him quickly disposed of before there is any contamination of the Cameron brand.

Werritty had access through Fox to the heart of Cameron's cabinet. He was also UK Director of a (now closed) charity called Atlantic Bridge. This charity was in partnership with a US lobbying company, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

This council's main funds come from a US charity, the Koch Charitable Foundation, run by two brothers, Charles and David Koch. The billionaire Kochs are famous as the major funders of the US Tea Party movement, which campaigns for extreme right wing policies. ALEC has also received funding from the Tobacco Institute (supporting the cigarette industry) and the National Rifle Association, which opposes gun control.

Bridge too far?

Yesterday Foreign Secretary William Hague argued that much of this political speculation was 'fanciful' and that there was nothing sinister about Atlantic Bridge. He was also at pains to imply that Fox did not have much influence over UK foreign or broader government policy.

But Labour's shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, accused Cameron of supporting a 'stealth neo-con agenda' with deep links into right wing US politics, which completely undermined his claim to be a 'compassionate conservative' or represent the middle ground of UK politics, in which he has so insistently staked his claim.

You Decide

  1. Is this scandal a sign of something sinister or a fuss over nothing?
  2. How dangerous is lobbying in a democracy? What, if anything, is wrong with it?

Activities

  1. Write your own ministerial code of conduct. What do you need to guard against, and what rules do you need to do it?
  2. Compose your own statement of resignation from some imaginary job. You'll need to sound as apologetic as possible (for some made-up offence) without actually admitting to having done anything wrong. It's an important political art.

Some People Say...

“I'm sick of conspiracy theories. (And nobody's perfect).”

What do you think?

Q & A

Don't all cabinet ministers have friends that they meet pretty often?
Probably. At least we might hope so, or life at the top would be lonely. The trouble for Fox was that Werritty was present at meetings Fox had with military figures, diplomats and defence contractors. And for a while he had a business card describing him as an advisor to the defence secretary.
And why shouldn't Werritty work for a right-wing organisation?
He has every right to. The problem here for David Cameron is one of perception. He wants to present his 'brand' as caring and green. And yet one of his appointed cabinet ministers is clearly very close to people who are anti-green, anti-welfare and mind bogglingly rich.

Word Watch

Mercurial
Volatile, lively or quick to change; characteristics associated with the Roman god Mercury.
Jack Profumo
John Profumo, informally known as Jack, was a British cabinet minister in the 1960s who resigned over his affair with showgirl Christine Keeler. The scandal was intensified by the fact that Keeler was also having an affair with a Soviet spy.
Cameron brand
David Cameron is known to want to 'detoxify' the Conservative brand, distancing himself from the party's lingering image as a party that cares more about big business than ordinary people. He has created a new model of 'compassionate conservatism'.

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