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Walking on water

Does Liam Fox think he can walk on water?

This seems to be a tale of hubris. I confess to not being a dedicated enough politics watcher to have given Fox much thought until the Werritty saga broke. But for the last week I have watched in some amazement at a politician floundering around trying to stave off the apparently inevitable (see here and here). It certainly looks as though either things are bad, but he hopes to front them out, or he feels that the public have no right to demand further details (which might innocently explain away the apparent difficulties). I have real difficulty understanding why he doesn’t give the exculpatory details (if they exist) or resign if they don’t.

No doubt things appear quite different from Fox’ viewpoint. I imagine he considers himself a top flight politician, who only just missed beating Cameron at the Tory leadership election. Indeed, this view has more objective support than mine. Remember that in the first ballot (just MPs voting) in October 2005, the votes were: David Davis 62, Cameron 56, Liam Fox 42, Ken Clarke 38. So Clarke was eliminated. In the second ballot, the votes were Cameron 90, Davis 57, Fox 51, so Fox was eliminated. The final two went to the party membership and got: Cameron 134k, Davis 64k. I say “just missed” because Fox’ view is that he would have done much better against Cameron with the party membership than Davis did. So he sees the critical vote as the second round. If just 4 MPs had voted for him instead of Davis, Davis would have been eliminated and Fox would have gone on to win. Maybe.

Soon after Tony Blair got into power in 1997, Fox had decided to boost his profile amongst US politicians by setting up The Atlantic Bridge. His thinking was presumably that this would increase his prestige in UK political circles. George Osborne, William Hague and Michael Gove joined its advisory panel, as did Joe Lieberman and two other US senators. Funding was supplied by a variety of donors including Michael Hintze, an Australian businessman now a hedgie in London worth just over $1 billion according to Forbes, and an Israeli pressure group (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre).

Atlantic Bridge eventually got charitable status in 2003, but lost it following a 2010 report by the Charity Commission that it was not sufficiently independent of party politics. It was wound up at the end of last month. Fox’ friend Adam Werritty was made the UK executive director (there was also a US executive director). That presumably brought him into contact with Michael Hintze.

If you check Fox’s entries in the Commons’ Register of Members’ Interests, you find no mention of Atlantic Bridge in 97/8, but it appears in 2000:

Overseas visits

30 October-1 November 1999, to Charlotte, USA, accompanied by a researcher, paid for by Atlantic Bridge Inc., a group of like minded Conservatives in North America and the UK exchanging political ideas and expertise. (Registered 20 January 2000)
20-22 November 1999, to New York, accompanied by a researcher, paid for by Atlantic Bridge Inc. (Registered 20 January 2000)

No mention in 2001/2. This in 2002/3, repeated in 2003/4, 2004/5:

4. Sponsorship or financial or material support

A researcher based in my office works exclusively for the Atlantic Bridge, a UK-American think-tank of which I am a founder member. In this role she receives funding from Pfizer Inc. She has no function in any health role. (Registered 13 June 2003)

In 2005/6 he moved from the Shadow Health role to the Shadow Defence role and listed support in the Register for nearly a dozen overseas trips (mainly upgrades from Virgin Atlantic, nothing from Atlantic Bridge). Michael Lewis (connected with the Israel pressure group) made contributions to his Tory leadership campaign (as did half-a-dozen others).

In 2006/7, Michael Hintze and three other hedgies (Stanley Fink, Alan Howard and Jon Moulton) made “contributions to staffing and running of private office”

I have not bothered to check in any detail after that. But it seems fairly clear that Fox disclosed enough whilst he was in opposition about funding from hedgies and friends of Israel to make clear that he was getting significant contributions from them which were used mainly for paying and supporting his staff.

Werritty’s pay as director of Atlantic Bridge is too loosely related to Fox to require disclosure in the Register of Members’ Interests, even if the donors wanted Werritty to have that role so that he could support Fox. But enough was in the public domain for any investigative journalist to uncover the situation with a little digging.

But for some reason, Werritty and matters related to him drop off Fox’s Register entries in recent months (I have not checked every month since the May 2010 election, but there is nothing in the last six months). Is that because the hedgies were no longer supporting Werritty’s role as informal adviser to Fox, or is it because Fox decided to conceal it how that he had become Secretary of State for Defence?

As I listened to the Today programme after the 7am news, I thought I heard support for the second alternative, but I cannot now find it in the Today “running order” where they have little audio clips of individual items. Maybe it was in the review of the press (for which there is no audio clip). If so, that might well be unreliable, because papers seem to be getting confused between the early disclosures above and the situation since the Tories got into power.

If the same group of hedgies had decided to continue supporting Werritty, so that Fox could continue to have the benefit of an adviser they deemed trustworthy, then it seems inconceivable that Fox did not know know about it. Indeed, it such funding would almost certainly have been at his request. So if he opted not to disclose it and persisted in concealing it after the scandal broke, then he is history.

No one would be able to understand why on earth did he not come out and explain it clearly and straightforwardly last week when the problems first blew up. The failure to disclose it for some months in the Register of Members’ Interests might have been unfortunate, but would hardly have been a resignation issue if it could have been convincingly portrayed as a mere oversight. But it is far too late for that now.

Various generals and others at the MoD have been blathering on about breaches of protocol and how appalling that Fox should want to appoint his own advisers. That is just ridiculous. The constitutional position is absolutely clear. Civil servants and advisers are just servants of the government of the day. If Fox wants to choose some second-rate lieutenant colonel as his adviser over the head of the Army Chief (who is apparently bleating about the appointment of Lt Col Livesey today), then he is fully entitled to do so.

Anyway, Labour is hardly in any position to complain about such things. It has a long history of deep distrust of the Civil Service, and many Labour Cabinet Ministers have wanted their own trusted advisers so that they could feel reassured they were not having wool pulled over their eyes by civil servants.

Of course, the last four paragraphs started with a huge if. Maybe Werritty has been funded from some other source. Perhaps he won the Euromillions Roll-over. But at this point Fox clearly has to prevail on Werritty to give full details if he (Fox) wants to keep his job.

Cameron seems to be saying that he is waiting to hear from Gus O’Donnell before taking any decisions. That is hardly a ringing endorsement.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Tom Welsh | 13 October 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    The cover of the current Private Eye says it all.

  2. John Scholes | 14 October 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Ah, I had not seen that!

    [Picture of Cameron and Fox sitting opposite each other at a table in a railway carriage. Fox “We’re just good friends”, Cameron: “No, we are not.” ]

    A cynic might say that Cameron was stringing things out, so that (1) Fox would be clear he had no one to blame but himself and (2) the final damage to Fox would be worse.

    But I doubt it is that calculated. Cameron says he wants to make sure he has the facts before he takes a decision. Given that he has apparently been handed a large can of worms that is not an unreasonable line to take.

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