x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The chase was on, and this Fox just couldn't escape

Even if it cannot be proved that Adam Werritty stood to profit financially from his access to power through his friendship with the Defence Minister, what this whole affair proves is that lines have become increasingly blurred.

Oscar Wilde famously said of the curiously eccentric British tradition of fox hunting that it was like watching the "unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible". This past week the British media have tried to outdo one another with comparisons between the beleaguered defence minister, Dr Liam Fox, and the erstwhile sport.

There is little doubt that Dr Fox is inedible, and it is undoubtedly true that the hunting pack of lobby correspondents has often acted unspeakably. Yet that is where the metaphor ends - as, it seems, does Dr Fox's career. Last night he surrendered to the hounds and resigned.

The media's quarry has been a standard-bearer of the British Conservative Right, an Atlanticist and, if it is to be believed, a former suitor of the pop singer Natalie Imbruglia. He has also been considered a "good" defence minister in that he has fought hard for his department when it was facing swingeing government cuts.

The reason for his demise is simple - but in a way also unexplainable. At the centre of it is his relationship with Adam Werritty, his best man, former business partner and for some time political co-conspirator. Werritty was caught shadowing Dr Fox around the globe, popping up at meetings from Dubai to Colombo, Tampa to Singapore. It is the unknowns of that relationship that kept the hounds on the trail.

Werritty claimed to be Dr Fox's "adviser" and had a business card, replete with the House of Commons portcullis symbol to prove it. British ministers do have "advisers", but these are paid for by the state as quasi civil servants, and do not have outside interests.

Werritty, it transpired, was not an official adviser, but his innumerable trips abroad - some 18 in total, which neatly dovetailed into Dr Fox's various overseas programmes - were apparently paid for by rich, right-wing supporters of the defence minister, including the super-wealthy hedge-funder Michael Hintze.

This altruism - Hintze and others have said they footed Werritty's jet-setting because they believed strongly in the political stand taken by Fox and felt that he needed upstanding advice - is touching, but the press pack could not be blamed for wondering if there were slightly more to this story than met the eye.

It is true that Werritty ran a charity, Atlantic Bridge, set up by Dr Fox and friends, whose overt partisanship forced the Charity Commission to close it down last year. It is also true that Atlantic Bridge was supportive of the so-called Special Relationship between Britain and the United States.

But it is also true that when Werritty signed himself into the Shangri La Hotel in Dubai - where he was to attend various meetings with Dr Fox in a "private capacity", he did so by signing his company as "Atlantic Bridge", while also declaring himself an adviser to the defence secretary.

The Guardian newspaper used Britain's Freedom of Information Act to find out on just how many occasions the two friends met. The Ministry of Defence obliged, showing that Werritty had visited Fox on more than 20 occasions at the ministry. In fact it would appear that the two were almost inseparable after Dr Fox became a minister, with around 70 meetings in different places recorded around the globe. Even before Fox became a minister, Werritty was apparently passing himself off as an adviser.

In 2009, Werritty met an Iranian lobbyist with close links to the Tehran regime, and took him off to meet Dr Fox in the House of Commons. The lobbyist seemed convinced that Werritty was Fox's adviser. Fox and Werritty subsequently flew off to Israel, with Werritty speaking at a conference about the "threat" posed by Iran. It was reported at the time that the leader of the British Conservative Party, now the prime minister, David Cameron was becoming irritated by the increasingly hawkish line emanating from Fox - and there was speculation that Fox was in reality developing a neoconservative foreign policy somewhat at odds to that Cameron had in mind.

Now all of this is interesting, but it was not the proverbial smoking gun. That, in the normal course of events, would have come if it had been proved that Werritty was profiting through his contacts with Dr Fox and that the minister in turn knew that Werritty was doing so, and in some way may have been benefiting. Yet in politics, a smoking gun is not always necessary to end a career. Sometimes the shadow of a gun is sufficient. And so it was with Dr Fox. The chase itself was causing damage to the government and therefore he had to go.

Earlier in the week, the defence secretary had survived a confidence motion in the House of Commons, and avoided having his case handed over to the parliamentary standards commission, which polices the business interests of members of Parliament.

While there was something almost ritualistic about the media hue and cry, accompanied as it was by the moral relativism of sections of the press who often seemed to be in it for the ride, none of the events of the past several days reflected well on Cameron's coalition government.

For it was Cameron who once warned of the dangers posed to government by lobbyists, and of the public perception that politicians are all in it for themselves. And this affair comes in the wake of the drawn-out expenses scandal that netted a number of MPs, including a handful who have since been sentenced to jail terms for fraud.

Cameron must undoubtedly have been scratching his head wondering what on earth was going on in his defence minister's mind, given the intense media spotlight that is now focused on the merest hint of impropriety.

Cameron, of course, knew that Fox was not one of his natural supporters. The risk in forcing his resignation is that the former cabinet minister - no longer bound by collective responsibility to support his prime minister - could be transformed over time into a potential backbench rival, a focal point for Tory euro-scepticism and neoconservatism. Clearly, as the pressure built on both the prime minister and the defence secretary, Cameron took the view that it was a risk he had to take.

What this whole affair proves is that in the potentially highly lucrative world of defence policy lines have become increasingly blurred. Every British defence minister has to walk a tightrope between being an advocate of British/Nato defence policy and being an advocate of the powerful and strategic defence industry back home.

At the same time, every defence minister knows that a possibly lucrative future of defence consultancies lies around the corner when he takes the decision to move on.

Dr Fox has taken that decision. The cynical among the "unspeakable" who have been so ardent in their chasing of him will no doubt be thinking that his long-standing business and political friendship with Adam Werritty was inevitably going to be a longer-term investment for them both.

Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera English TV and a UK political commentator