The not-so-fantastic Mr Fox

We always knew he was a hawk not a dove.

From today's Guardian:

William Hague was forced to clarify the government's thinking on Afghanistan today when he declared that he would be "very surprised" if Kabul's military was unable to take the lead by 2014 . . .

He clarified the government's thinking after [Liam] Fox waded into a row in Washington over the withdrawal of Nato forces. In a speech to the right-wing Heritage Foundation he said an early withdrawal would risk a return to civil war and betray the sacrifices of soldiers who gave their lives.

An early draft of his speech made no mention of [David] Cameron's declaration last week. In the final version of his text Fox endorsed Cameron's view, though he later told the BBC that British troops would be among the last to leave Afghanistan.

There has been much discussion in right-wing circles about the prospect of a split between Fox and Cameron over the direction of defence and foreign policy, in general, and over the strategy in Afghanistan, in particular. But as the Spectator's James Forsyth rightly argues:

There is, though, a feeling in Westminster that Fox is vulnerable. Fox has already used up a rather large number of his nine lives -- think of the "13th century" comment on the eve of a visit to Afghanistan, saying that military pensions are ring-fenced when they are not and publicly announcing the departure of the Chief of Defence Staff outside of the Downing Street grid.

But Fox has a significant source of protection. He's one of the few representatives of the Tory right in the coalition cabinet. Only he, Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson are regarded as being on the right by the right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. If Fox was to leave government, Cameron would find his right flank dangerously exposed.

Fox is not just a right-winger; he is, as commentators on the left and right have argued, close to the hawkish and neoconservative faction inside the party on foreign and defence matters. He set up the Atlantic Bridge think tank in 1997, with the aim of "strengthening the special relationship" with the United States (though it is now being investigated by the Charity Commission). The Defence Secretary was also an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it was surprising to see his earlier non-neocon remarks on Afghanistan:

We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.

He sounded a bit like a realist, more Ken Clarke than Paul Wolfowitz. But the not-so-fantastic Mr Fox is now back on form, telling the Heritage Foundation in his speech that he did not favour what he called "premature withdrawal" (and, in fact, he plans to keep British troops in Afghanistan longer than other allied nations, according to the BBC) because:

To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the Alliance undermined.

It would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices made by our armed forces in life and limb.

Who says Afghanistan ain't like Vietnam? Here are the same sort of absurd and illogical arguments from the same sort of cold, dead-eyed defence officials -- we have to stay longer because we have lost lots of men already, so we have to stay longer and lose more lives, and then we have to stay even longer to make sure those lives weren't lost in vain, and so on and so on, ad infinitum . . .

Perhaps the Defence Secretary should be reminded of John Kerry's remarks to the Senate foreign relations committee on 23 April 1971. Then a decorated, 27-year-old navy veteran of Vietnam and a high-profile member of the anti-war movement, Kerry asked:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, does Liam Fox have an answer to this question?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.