Written by 'The Lurcher'; an occasional contributor to ConservativeHome.
I think it’s time to subject the allegations against Liam Fox to a little forensic scrutiny. Let’s start with the Guardian/Observer, which is leading the frenzy.
1) The Guardian alleges that Adam Werritty “described himself as an adviser to the secretary of state on business cards.” This isn’t correct. He described himself as an “adviser to the Rt Hon Liam Fox MP.” That’s a significant distinction. The business card did not mention Fox’s role as Secretary of State. They did not refer to the MoD or carry its logo. The reason this is important is that Cabinet Ministers have “special advisers” who are bound by a specific code of practice. MPs can and do have advisers, but they are not bound by that code. The card, which carried the Portcullis logo, is a card a parliamentary advisor might carry, not a ministerial adviser.
2) It’s also evident that Werritty made this clear in his dealings. The Guardian’s chief source appears to be Harvey Boulter of the Porton Group. The Guardian reports that Werritty e-mailed Boulter saying he had “passed this [Boulter's concerns about a legal battle] to one of the Special advisers and I'd hope they'd want to make an issue out of this but that's about all I can do on this". In other words Werritty was not holding himself out to be a special adviser, but something different and rather less influential.
3) The Guardian claims that e-mails contradict Fox’s claim that his meeting with Boulter came about as a result of an accidental encounter in a hotel restaurant. Again this doesn’t bear much analysis. Fox’s reported words (I haven’t heard the interview) are: “Actually the defence industry representative asked for it [the meeting] when they happened to be sitting at a nearby table at a restaurant.” He didn’t say that he was sitting at the nearby table. Boulter told the Guardian: that he “bumped into (Werritty) in the restaurant and he offered to set up the meeting with Fox, because he said he [Fox] was in town.” In other words, there was a chance encounter between Werritty and Boulter in a restaurant whilst Fox was not there which led to Werritty arranging the meeting. This seems to support, not contradict, what Fox has said.
4) Moving to Labour’s claims. Jim Murphy says in the Mail today: “The most serious allegation is that Mr Werritty, who has no security clearance, may have had access to sensitive, even classified, information”. Note that “may”. There is no evidence that this happened whatsoever. True, Adam Werritty visted Liam Fox at the MoD about once a month. They are close friends; that’s not a problem. The MoD staff are well-used to people without security clearance coming into the building. This proves nothing, except perhaps that Fox values his friendships.
5) In all of this there is no evidence of any wrong-doing or improper behaviour. There is no evidence of any contracts being awarded or deals being done as a result of these meetings. No evidence of party donations being made (this is very far from being an Ecclestone case). Murphy needs to do better than “may” or he is running the smear operation he claims to deplore.
6) The Guardian even says that when Boutler tried to raise his litigation with Fox, Fox simply replied “I’m sure you’re dealing with it in the best way possible” – which is a classic brush-off and doesn’t reveal any detailed discussion.
7) Turning to the Sri Lanka trip. Fox has a long history of involvement in Sri Lanka dating back to his time as a Foreign Officer minister when he brokered the “Fox agreement” – the first time an outsider had been able to help the opposing sides reach consensus (the Guardian reports). That’s a significant achievement, which should be celebrated. It’s now said that this visit was an “official trip”. In fact, as the Guardian reported at the time, it was unofficial, and taken in a personal capacity: He did not attend in his capacity as Secretary of State. So it was not “official”.
So, what’s left? Not a great deal at the moment, except some deeply unpleasant innuendo. Fox has said he will answer questions, and no doubt he will. But he was in Libya all day yesterday on official business. In the meantime, Jim Murphy, Harvey Boulter and the Guardian may find they have overplayed their hands. If they do, that will reflect much more on them than on Fox.
In terms of what's next for Fox, he deserves to be treated in the same way as other government members this parliament. At its worst, he agreed to attend a meeting at the request of a friend and was accompanied by the same friend on an unofficial trip. That seems to be significantly less harmful than Cameron’s decision to take his friend Coulson into Downing Street despite receiving warnings about his activities at the NOTW. It also seems less severe than Vince Cable’s foolish bragging about his war on Murdoch which led to him losing ministerial responsibility and the restructuring of 2 government departments.
Fox can get through this. I hope he does.