I must admit, even as a former political journalist, I find all this Fox hunting a bit of journalistic hyper-ventilation. It is like a pack of dogs chasing prey just because the prey is running. Clearly, mistakes were made, and boundaries blurred, but (at the time of writing) there is no smoking gun. Indeed, hardly even the shadow of a gun. Frustrated at not getting a scalp, the pack then turns its attention to rumour-mongering about a politician’s personal life that in calmer times would be considered not just intolerably prurient, but simply homophobic.
When the story about Adam Werrity emerged, and there was shock that he was a roving unpaid adviser to Liam Fox, I was reminded of Johan Eliasch. The multimillionaire entrepreneur former Tory donor became a roving unpaid adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and once presented me with a business card with his name and a Number 10 logo on it. There was nothing wrong with that – it was all above board. It is very common in politics to have unpaid advisers. John Birt worked unpaid as Tony Blair’s strategy adviser, and Nat Wei worked unpaid as this government’s big society adviser. The trouble seems to be that Mr Werrity operated outside the reach of MoD officials, which was presumably the point, even if it meant upsetting officials. Understandably enough, officials, who wouldn’t have got where they are without being skilled at power politics, hate anything that is outside their control – which is why they try and take personal phones off incoming Prime Ministers. Many ministers make efforts to ensure that not all their communications with the outside world are filtered by officials. Unless you think a minister who has become a captive of his or her officials is doing their job properly, you shouldn’t oppose ministers trying to keep independent lines of communication. I also find it difficult to share the shock that the Secretary of State for Defence – who is democratically elected with a political mandate from the Prime Minister – should want to appoint his own military adviser, rather than just accepting the one provided to him by the armed forces. In the reporting of this, the journalists are siding with the vested interests of the bureaucracy, who appear to be briefing against their political master. In almost any other country the shock would be the other way around – if a senior politician didn’t want to bring in a few of their own people whose loyalty they can rely on, or whose abilities they admire. In the US, politicians swamp the bureaucracy with legions of fellow travellers, and it is considered an acceptable way for a democratically elected politician to make an impact on an unelected bureaucracy. Let’s all take a deep breath.