This article is from the November issue of Total Politics
A month ago, Liam Fox was partying with Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron on his 50th birthday. Now, he is the disgraced former defence secretary – and the first Conservative casualty in cabinet.
Fox resigned after admitting he “mistakenly allowed” his personal and professional responsibilities to become “blurred”.
His relationship with an old friend did indeed become ‘blurry’. In just 18 months, Adam Werritty met with Fox 22 times in the Ministry of Defence and 18 times on trips abroad. He handed out business cards, adorned with the Portcullis crest, describing himself as an “adviser” to Fox. And he attended diplomatic events and meetings with commercial suppliers alongside Fox, often without another MoD official present.
To top it off, the police and the Electoral Commission may probe allegations that Fox and Werritty misled donors and failed to declare funding.
Fox’s opposite number, Jim Murphy, claimed that the defence secretary had “driven a coach and horses” through the ministerial code, alleging breaches of the rules in sections 5.2, 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, 7.4 and 7.5. The cabinet secretary and the MoD permanent secretary compiled a report on Fox’s potential breaches. Before they could announce their findings, Fox stood down.
“I was initially surprised,” remarks one Conservative MP. “But when I reflect upon it, it was inevitable.”
A friend of Fox’s adds: “When I last spoke to him, he sounded very tired and down. He’s usually quite Tigger-ish and cocky. I’m very sad for him. He’s lost his ministerial career at the age of 50.”
In what appears to have been his last profile interview as defence secretary, we spoke to Liam Fox about the Werritty affair, his reflections on Libya and his legacy for the MoD.
Fox is sitting in his office. He doesn’t appear to be in the best of moods, and it worsens when Werritty is mentioned.
The Guardian alleged a few months ago that Werritty, best man at Fox’s wedding in 2005, brokered a meeting in the Middle East that led to the defence secretary being involved in a blackmail lawsuit. What’s the truth behind these accusations?
Fox’s eyes go cold. “I’ve made very clear my position on that, and I wouldn’t touch it because of legal reasons.”
Does he expect to have to appear in a US court? “I’m not expecting to,” he replies curtly. “I’ve made very clear that the email involved was completely untrue. I have no idea what the motivation behind it was, but I note that the allegations haven’t been repeated.” The subject is dropped. But, of course, the allegations are repeated.
Before his abrupt return to the backbenches, Fox was still being talked of as a future Conservative leader. He narrowly came third in a leadership bid in 2005. Would he consider running again?
“No,” he replies. “David Cameron has proved to be an extraordinarily skilful leader. And given that it’s my 50th birthday tomorrow...” (he describes it as “the first 50”).
Fifty is not too old to be a leader, though. “No,” he responds, “but I expect David to be the party leader for a long time yet, and there are some smart newcomers entering the party. I don’t foresee the circumstances, frankly.” He shrugs as though he’s missed a bus rather than resigned his ambitions for party leadership.
At a press lunch a few months ago, Fox heaped praise on Cameron as a good “coalition prime minister”. Some felt his words were carefully chosen. Fox’s people insist that the comment was innocent.
Now he is no longer in cabinet, there are already mutterings about Fox “rallying MPs on the right from the backbenches”. But one Conservative is sceptical. “David Davis and Liam Fox – they are yesterday’s men,” he says, “the discredited members of the right.”
How did Fox feel about being portrayed as Gordon Brown to Cameron’s Tony Blair? “That’s in the rabid imagination of the media.” He smiles. “I get on very well with David Cameron. We were friends long before we were colleagues. I’ve known him since he was Michael Howard’s special adviser back in the early 1990s.” Fox was Howard’s parliamentary private secretary, and later his departmental whip.
“David and I used to play tennis every week.” Who’s better? “He’s taller and he’s left-handed. You get two advantages over me in tennis.”
Fox has left a formidable reputation in the MoD. His dogged approach towards protecting the defence budget allowed him to develop a niche in government.
Even opposition members acknowledge this. Thomas Docherty, a Labour member of the defence select committee, says: “Fox really did go toe-to-toe with Osborne. I don’t think there’s any other cabinet minister that could do that. We all know that he saw Osborne down on the spending review. That’ll be Liam Fox’s legacy.”
Fox was shadow defence secretary for almost six years before assuming the post in government. He spent 18 months as defence secretary before resigning. His predecessor, Bob Ainsworth, lasted less than a year. Before him, John Hutton was in the post for just nine months. But Fox is the first defence secretary forced to resign over a scandal since Jack Profumo in 1963.
Fox will hate this. He took great pleasure in talking about how Labour were unable to keep a defence secretary in post. Being lumped with this legacy will be one of the most painful elements of his downfall.
Greater stability in the MoD was a key recommendation in Lord Levene’s recent review. Fox says: “In opposition, David Cameron was very clear that he wanted those in his top jobs to stay there, so they got the critical mass of experience. He’s not a leader who chops and changes all the time.” Unless he has to, of course.
We’re talking in a room adjacent to Fox’s main office. It’s beige and unfussy. There are a couple of paintings on the wall, some decorative swords, two ivory-looking plates, and that’s about it. One of Fox’s staff says they had someone in to look at the décor, but the only change from Ainsworth’s day was a red rug placed in front of the secretary of state’s desk.
Fox received dozens of parliamentary questions about his furniture, art and redecorating costs. “Do they think we have nothing better to do with our time? We have a £38bn deficit. I wonder what the defence secretary did during the day,” he says about the previous Labour government.
“We’ve done the defence review, the spending review, the defence reform unit.” He thumps the wall to emphasise each achievement. “We’ve set up the defence business services, the defence infrastructure organisation. We’ve got the major projects board, the defence exports review board… We’ve done the Mull of Kintyre review – in 17 months.” It’s an impressive record to leave behind.
As defence secretary, Fox also oversaw the conflict in Libya. It’s taken up so much of his time, that he’s not had a chance to replace his lost wedding ring.
It’s noticeably absent during the photoshoot. “I’ve got to cover my hands because I lost my wedding ring skiing,” he says. “I didn't get a major domestic award… I was supposed to be skiing for a week, but because of Libya, it went down to a day-and-a-half. I lost the back of my watch and my ring. It cost me £850 on top of the week that I didn’t get!”
When Fox introduced his Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) last September, the Libyan conflict was an unforeseen cost. There are fears that the bill will be excessive. At the start of the campaign, chancellor George Osborne stated it would cost the taxpayer “tens of millions”. This was later pushed up to £260m. Some suggest the cost could be even higher.
The planning assumptions outlined in the SDSR claim the armed forces could afford to be involved in one “enduring stabilisation operation” (up to 6,500 personnel), while also conducting one “non-enduring complex intervention” (up to 2,000 personnel) and one “non-enduring simple intervention” (up to 1,000 personnel). With an ongoing operation in Afghanistan, does Libya risk exceeding the SDSR’s assumptions?
“No,” Fox replies. “We think of ‘short’ as being six months, and were always planning to look at the end of September. That looks as though it is, in terms of the Nato operation, winding down a bit – or it will wind down in the next few weeks. So that’s about right.”
But, for the first time, Fox admits: “We have contingency plans to roll out until the end of December if required, but that doesn’t impact on what we’re able to achieve.” This would be likely to affect the costs of the operation, but Fox won’t be drawn any further. As one Conservative MP involved with defence says: “It’s almost impossible to pin the MoD down on detail if it’s not in its interest to tell you.”
Fox reflects on the Libyan operation. “We have a lot of lessons to learn from Libya. We’ve taken great care to minimise civilian casualties – we showed a greater respect for human life in Libya than the Gaddafi regime ever did. That’s made it easier to move into the post-regime world. Unlike Iraq, the civilian infrastructure doesn’t have to be rebuilt. The reputation of the UK has been enhanced within Nato, which has, on balance, done a good job.”
However, in a speech in July, Fox had strong words for some of Nato’s other European members. “It’s quite clear that they cannot continue to shoulder the burden of everyone else’s defence,” he said. “When we look at the sometimes pathetic contributions being made by some Nato countries, the European elements of Nato cannot expect the US to come to our aid on every occasion.”
He is unapologetic about his statement. “We’ll want to have a frank discussion about why countries like Germany and Poland didn’t take part, and why others, like Norway and Denmark, disproportionately pulled their weight,” he says. “That’s a debate we had inside Nato. It’s one we need better ground rules for.”
He continues: “Only five of the 28 members of Nato make the two per cent GDP figure. Yet some of them talk about creating an EU defence force as well. Presumably they will dilute their already unacceptably low contribution to Nato to divert it into the EU. That’s something I profoundly oppose.”
He describes the calls from within the EU to create an EU defence force as “unacceptable demands”. “There’s a role for the EU when Nato cannot act – or in circumstances where it won’t act – but it lies primarily in economic or diplomatic humanitarian civilian military co-operation areas,” he says.
“To try to create a separate EU command risks diverting already scarce resources away from the main Nato effort. I’d politely remind those who would say, ‘We just want to do the peacekeeping, not the fighting’ that you can only be a peacekeeper if there’s a peace to keep.”
Fox is a known eurosceptic. “I make no secret of my views,” he says. “We’ve got too many of our powers already vested in Europe. I’d like to see some loosening of that relationship.” Does he support the new parliamentary group, led by George Eustice, that is calling for a renegotiation of the UK’s role in the EU? “It’s a legitimate debate. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t happening inside the Conservative Party.”
It’s a delicate position – a eurosceptic who believes we have too much power vested in Europe, but who also wants certain European countries to pull more weight in Nato. It’s not an easy negotiation point.
And it seems new defence secretary Philip Hammond may face the same dilemma. The former transport secretary is known to be one of the cabinet’s strongest eurosceptics. Talking about the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, he spoke of “the casual way in which Britain's self-interest has been abandoned”. Sources close to Hammond confirm that there will be “no change” in the MoD’s stance on an EU defence force, as it could “undermine” Nato.
Europe has long been a dividing line within the coalition. At the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, energy secretary Chris Huhne said: “We need no Tea Party tendency in Britain… If you keep beating the anti-European drum, if you slaver over tax cuts for the rich, then you will put in peril the most crucial achievement of this government.”
“There’s a clear division [over Europe],” according to Fox. “In the MoD’s interests, we clearly cannot accept, for example, permanent defence headquarters for the EU,” he says. “William Hague vetoed it at the council of ministers, but it’s being attempted by the back door through permanent structure co-operation. We can’t accept the outcome, whatever the mechanism.”
Fox is a “huge fan” of the UK’s relationship with the US. “I believe profoundly in Nato as the cornerstone of our defence, and that the American underpinning of that relationship is of enormous importance. America is, in general, a force for great good, and I find Britain's latent anti-Americanism deeply disturbing.”
He even founded a charity called Atlantic Bridge to strengthen the special bond. Advisory board members included William Hague, George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Coincidentally, Werritty was chief executive of the charity, allegedly making £90,000 between 2007 and 2010.
There’s also a suggestion that Atlantic Bridge operated out of Fox’s parliamentary office for a time. However, the charity was told by the Charity Commission to cease its activities because it was “promoting a political policy [that] is closely associated with the Conservative Party”. It has since been dissolved.
Tory MP John Whittingdale became one of the charity’s trustees after “old friend” Fox asked him to join. “I don’t think I ever attended a single meeting,” Whittingdale reveals, “which might tell you something about Atlantic Bridge.”
Sources close to the group suggest it could be relaunched under a different name. One said that “work is underway”. But it’s not clear if that is still the case, following Fox’s resignation.
It’s not the only controversy to have dogged Fox in his time at the MoD. Last year, a leaked letter to David Cameron revealed Fox’s concerns over the SDSR. He told Total Politics at the time: “I’m very serious about getting to the bottom of the leak… I’m very keen to get a prosecution on the back of it.”
Just over a year later, there’s been a development. “It still irks me that happened, although we have had two arrests for breaches of security in terms of leaks,” says Fox. “But that matter is with the police at the moment, so I can’t comment.”
He’s also been criticised for his travel costs in his time as defence secretary. One paper estimates that Fox rang up a £100,000 bill for his foreign trips. He has little patience with this criticism. “It’s right that ministers visit their forces. With the crises we’ve had over Libya, the ongoing problems in Afghanistan, it’s right that you’d want to talk to your allies as much as possible. The American secretary of state’s website says how many miles they’ve travelled for America. Only in Britain do we get this petty sniping.”
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s trips work out at an estimated 19,021 miles a month, after 31 months in the job. According to figures from July, Fox had travelled roughly 140,000 miles, 14 months after starting the job. This equated to 10,000 miles a month.
Fox counters: “We made defence diplomacy a key part of our policy. We have an extra minister especially so we can have someone travelling all the time. We believe we should be reaching out to established partners in the Nordic and Baltic groups, and a bilateral relationship with France. That requires you to get on a plane.”
Fox grew up in East Kilbride, Scotland, on a council estate with his brother and two sisters. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, and then worked as an NHS GP in Somerset and served as a civilian Army medical officer. Always keen on politics, he was elected as the Conservative MP for Woodspring in 1992.
A man of faith, he attends church “occasionally”. “I tend to vary which church I go to in terms of denomination. It just so happens I’ve been twice this week already.
“It’s very dangerous to begin justifying political decisions on a religious basis. But personal religious views set the ethics that determine the basis upon which those decisions are made. I’ve always found it strange that people could be pro-death penalty, but anti-abortion – that’s ethically inconsistent. I’ve always been anti-death penalty and anti-abortion together.”
Did he feel the government could have handled the backbench amendments on abortion in the Health and Social Care Bill better? “These things are always controversial and cause a lot of angst – I wasn’t sure whether I thought that particular amendment was great, but I wanted to signal my dissent to the way it operates at the present time. There could be better choices available for MPs, but there weren’t on that occasion.”
Fox finds it hard to stay still for long. He starts combing through a pre-briefing for a lunch with the home secretary. Shortly after, he sneaks a look at the stock markets on his iPad. “I like to know all the numbers – number anorak,” he explains.
His favourite quote, from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, is indicative of his approach: “So many worlds, so much to do, so little done, such things to be”.
What does he want his legacy to be? “I’d like to be remembered as somebody who understood the armed forces and the department, who recognised what needed to be done and was willing to carry it through. Leadership is about making the right decision and following it through.
“I wouldn’t have been a good doctor if I said, ‘I know what the correct treatment is, but I’m not going to recommend it because it’s unpleasant.’ That would be unethical. So why don’t the same judgments apply to politics?”
Traditionally, a fox hunt ends when the fox evades the hounds, ‘goes to ground’ or is killed.
Foxes have a remarkable ability to survive in hostile environments, but this hunt was too dogged, even for wily Liam Fox. His scent was too strong to call off the hounds.
It was personal judgment that brought him down.
Liam Fox may be a year older, but the tale of his demise is age-old.