By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron has three main reasons not to sack Liam Fox. The first is that he dislikes reshuffling his own team, let alone one in which the Liberal Democrats are involved. The second is he believes governments look and are weak if they allow the media to dictate terms – especially since an enquiry into Fox's affairs is under way. The third, and most telling, is that he doesn't want to see a right-wing rival loose on the backbenches. If the Defence Secretary has to go (which I hope he won't), the Prime Minister would rather he went weakened first – by the press coverage that may carry on running until the inquiry reports.
The media doesn't always act as a pack, but is doing so now in what it is impossible not to call the Fox Hunt. The reason is simple: the continuing struggle between politicians and media to control events, regardless of whether the Government is red, blue or coalition. The pack wants to get its man before next week, producing a mass of stories that either prompt the Defence Secretary to walk ("Dear Prime Minister, I think it's best that I go. I will carry on supporting the Government from the back benches. Yours, Liam") or Cameron – believing that keeping Fox would now be more dangerous than losing him – to sack him. ("Dear Liam, I'm most terribly sorry. Ever, David.")
I've written previously that the report will turn on whether Werritty took money from defence interests and if so what effect this had on defence policy, if any. The Times pursues this angle today and splashes on its story:
"A corporate intelligence company with a close interest in Sri Lanka, a property investor who lobbies for Israel and a venture capitalist keen on strong ties with Washington helped to fund the jet-set lifestyle of Liam Fox’s close friend, The Times can reveal.
Over the past year, Adam Werritty, the Defence Secretary’s best man and self-styled adviser, paid for first-class travel around the world and stays in five-star hotels using some of the £147,000 paid into the bank account of a not-for-profit company that he set up."
In the meantime, the Guardian reports that Fox's supporters are organising a fightback:
"It is the first tangible sign that Cameron will face an internal battle if he feels compelled to ask Fox to resign because of his links with Adam Werritty, his close friend and fixer. Fox has been asked to make a special address to the foreign affairs sub-committee of the backbench 1922 committee next Tuesday."
There is more elsewhere, and this morning's coverage shifts significantly from the private to the political. A neglected theme of the story until very recently has been Werrity's part in what in effect was Fox's shadow political operation.
The Financial Times asks if Werrity was part of a continuing Fox leadership campaign, and the Guardian asks if he was part of a shadow Fox foreign policy. All political big hitters – of which the Defence Secretary is one – have similar operations.
Downing Street clearly felt it wise to leave Fox's alone. Footnote: although the reporters are in full cry, the leader columns and commentators have not yet joined in en masse. If or when they do the hunt will near its climax.