Margo MacDonald: Cunning or clownish, Fox escaped scrutiny

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Holyrood has been in recess this week, so I took a busman’s holiday on Monday.

I watched the electronic equivalent of the politician’s house magazine – the Parliament Channel. The programme promo hinted at the ritual disembowelment of Liam Fox, the Defence Minister. Political anoraks can work up as much excitement over a well-placed question as the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, over a flash of Edwina Currie’s underwear.

I gathered together my packet of disposable hankies, a bag of mixed gummy sweeties and a big mug of tea, much as I’d do for a three- handkerchief weepie film, and settled down to watch, Madam Defarge-like, as heads rolled.

A glance at the newspapers’ front pages defined the Defence Minister as either sleekit or simple. His best friend looked to be cashing in on Dr Fox’s status to further his own business interests. Dr Fox, the stories hinted, made it easy for the one-time health, now defence, consultant, to open doors to business contacts by allowing his diary commitments to be given to his friend. Thus, Mr Werritty could be in the right place at the right time to pursue private defence contracts from foreign government ministers the Defence Secretary was meeting in an official capacity.

The implication was not that Liam Fox was benefiting financially, but that but for his friendship, neither would Adam Werritty have had the opportunity to tout for business. The Defence Minister’s complicity in his pal’s entrepreneurialism was judged an open and shut case by some commentators and politicians when it became known Mr Werritty used business cards decorated with the emblem of the House of Commons, and bearing his name and description as an “advisor” to Liam Fox. This was compounded by photographs of the two pals in the company of foreign politicians.

These suggest pure brass neck, or a Minister who couldn’t say “No”, but in a different league from the deliberate frauds of MPs’ expenses. However, if it’s proved that Liam Fox agreed to the use of these misleading business cards, he will have broken the code under which Ministers operate, unquestionably.

After listening to Dr Fox’s statement on Monday, when MPs had the chance to tease out the whys and whens, and who, of this crucial question, instead of weeping into my hankies at the sight of a man undone, I was screaming in frustration at the inability of the so-called big hitters in Westminster to focus on what was important and ignore the gossip.

The closest to a killer question highlighted the unlikelihood of sheer, unplanned coincidence explaining why the two friends had met 18 times in various exotic locations since Dr Fox was appointed Defence Secretary. But Dr Fox played it back with a straight bat: Nothing sinister . . . he’d been abroad for different reasons: conferences, meetings, lectures, family holidays etc. And why shouldn’t Ministers have some down time after they’d done the business, at the conference, meeting etc? Of course you’d try and meet up with friends and acquaintances. And it would be only natural to promise to get together for dinner if you were both to be in Dubai, Singapore etc at the same time?

In the case of Dr Fox and his long-time pal, it should have been second nature for the Defence Minister to remind Mr Werritty that, nowadays, he is a Minister and shouldn’t mix socially with people he might meet the following morning in his official capacity.

Also, MPs didn’t establish on what basis Mr Werritty visited the MoD. As a bona fide defence consultant, presumably his visits are unremarkable. The interesting questions rest on his reasons for doing so, who he met on these visits, their frequency, and if he constructed his work calendar to shadow that of the Defence Minister. Dr Fox made light of this by saying that it was quite normal for friends to try to co-ordinate visits abroad when they each had work to do and people to see. Wisely, Dr Fox has owned up to being slipshod in observing the ministerial code and his pal has offered his financial records to the official enquiry into the affair.

For the record, a much more rigorous standard of proof would be needed to establish whether Dr Fox had prior knowledge of his friend’s business cards before he told him to bin them in June. I’m inclined to give the good-ish Doctor the benefit of the doubt and put it down to a careless arrogance on his part and a dangerous ignorance of the proprieties of democratic government on his friend’s part. On the other hand, maybe one or other, or both, are chancers.