There was too much mystery for Downing Street to bear

The issue Fox could never quite get clear of was that he needed to be especially careful given his p

Why did Liam Fox's position become untenable? One minute he seems determined to battle on -- then, he is gone.

Clearly he was being undermined by the constant drip-drip of new allegations or inferences, with different elements of the story emerging every day. That made it hard for the (now former) defence secretary to get on with his job, which creates a sense of dysfunction and drift in government. The longer that goes on, the likelier it becomes that the prime minister's command of the situation will come under question. That is clearly the turn events had taken in the last 24 hours.

When there is scandal in the air, Downing Street wants to be able to say it is awaiting the outcome of investigations -- or lines to that effect. The PM needs a way of asserting control. That was impossible this week because it kept getting harder to know what was under investigation.

Fox's contact with Werrity? Werrity's contacts in the international defence industry? Werrity's financial affairs and how they might have been intertwined with his work alongside Fox? The international political/ideological component of Werrity's lobbying activities and connections? Printing dodgy business cards is one thing, running a shadow foreign policy is something else entirely.

In other words, the whole thing had spiralled beyond possible breaches of the ministerial code. Questions were being raised about whether Fox's independence and integrity as the senior politician in charge of UK defence might have been compromised.

When Werrity looked like an eccentric accompaniment to Fox's entourage the worst offence that could be levelled against the defence secretary was breach of protocol. Hence senior civil servants were invited to investigate. It was all just a matter of process. If it turned out some Whitehall niceties had been overlooked, well, that would not have been a sackable offence.

But the issue that Fox could never quite get clear of was the suggestion that he ought to have been especially careful given the specific sensitivities of his portfolio. His friends consistently sneered at the idea that there was a "national security" dimension to the allegations. But ultimately, that, I think, is what has finished him. There was simply too high a volume of mystery around Werrity -- and what personal agenda he might have had -- for people, including ultimately the Prime Minister, to be relaxed about him swanning in and out of the MoD and taking intimate foreign trips with the Defence Secretary.

Cameron wanted to hang on to Fox for long enough to show to the right wing of his party that he wasn't itching to despatch one of their standard bearers from the cabinet. But the perception of a labyrinthine trail of sleaze was starting to damage the PM. Cameron is also generally reluctant to reshuffle his cabinet -- so much so as to be almost allergic to the concept. Now, of course, he has no choice.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.