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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.