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

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage