By Paul Goodman
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It is a statement of the obvious to say that the Coalition is not a steady ship. Liam Fox has as good a claim as anyone to be the leader of the Conservative right in Parliament – never shy of asserting his identity as a "free marketeer, Unionist, Euro-sceptic and Atlanticist", as he did during a fluent speech at a ConservativeHome event during last week's party conference. He is also a seasoned operator with a network of allies built up both before and after his lively 2005 leadership campaign, and is capable of awkward interventions at delicate moments. Remember how he warned David Cameron during the Coalition negotiations that the party's "collective leadership" would need to take a view.
Part of his statement yesterday morning wasn't so much difficult as menacing: "I think there are underlying issues behind these claims and the motivation is deeply suspect", he said. These words appear simply to be an attack on both the Guardian, which has run with the Fox story and hopes to repeat its toppling of Jonathan Aitken, and Jim Murphy, Labour's Shadow Defence Secretary, who is perhaps the Shadow Cabinet's leading Blairite and certainly sees the prospect of boosting his standing by gaining a scalp. But Downing Street will not have read them as straightforwardly as that. The issues are deliberately not described, the motives not identified and the perpetrators unnamed.
Cameron and Fox have a strained history. The latter would have given the former a run for his money had they been the last two left in the 2005 leadership contest, and both know it. One feels at home in the politics of 2011, in which the mediator is the message: namely, Cameron, who in Opposition put a windmill on his house and was photographed with huskies. The other is a child of the 1980s, in which message and mediator were more easily kept separate: Fox likes to argue from first principles, has a passionate belief in the power of ideas, and doesn't thrust his family life in front of the cameras. It is this difference, as well as the divergence between their kinds of conservatism, that makes relations between them uneasy.
Early dealings between Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence were tense after the Government was formed: there was a leaked letter, a row over the way Fox briefed the departure of Jock Stirrup, spats with other Cabinet Ministers and a second leaked letter. But they have been much better recently: the Defence Secretary weighed in behind the Libyan venture and is pushing through MOD reform. Cameron hates reshuffles, rightly believing that they cause more pain than gain. And changing this Cabinet is especially awkward, since the Prime Minister can't or won't move its Liberal Democrat members without prior agreement from Nick Clegg. Furthermore, losing Ministers from government suggests losing control of events.
But the most pressing reason for Cameron wanting to keep his Defence Secretary aboard is not the desire for a quiet life, but a fear of the future. As we know from the depature of Fox's heroine, Lady Thatcher, stab-in-the-back myths can have potency and resonance. If the Prime Minister were to lose him quickly, he would not only have yet another senior right-winger loose on the backbenches but risk the emergence of exactly such a story – of a left-of-Tory-centre leader wanting to lose a right-of-Tory-centre rival, as the Daily Mail's Peter McKay hints this morning. To say that Cameron won't want the ship rocked in this way is an understatement. If the Prime Minister can save Fox, he will. If he can't, he will hang on for as long as he can, waiting for further events to blacken the Defence Secretary's reputation. (The Guardian pushes again today.)
A nasty business all round. But that's politics, I'm afraid: "Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive, officiously, to keep alive."