Liam Fox cut a confident figure during his statement to the Commons. He quipped that he was pleased to see “so many new members interested in defence” and, in a calculated show of support, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Eric Pickles all joined him on the frontbench.
But none of this could disguise how embarrassing the facts are for the Defence Secretary. He was forced to admit that he met his self-styled “special adviser” Adam Werrity 40 times in 16 months (18 times on trips overseas and 22 times at the Ministry of Defence), many more than previously thought. For two months, the MoD insisted that Werrity was not taken on any official trips. Fox said that he merely met Werrity “in a social capacity” on “the margins” but he is open to the charge of misleading MPs.
While Fox was on his feet, the MoD sent out the findings of its interim report, which notes “a potential grey area, where personal or party political meetings or events take place during times when the Secretary of State is not accompanied by a Private Secretary; such events can potentially stray into government business.” It recommends that in the future the Private Office should “clarify the attendance of people not part of the Ministerial party (other than the spouse/partner of the Minister) at informal or social gatherings.”
In a strong and forensic response, Jim Murphy accused Fox of “driving a coach and horses” through the ministerial code. Fox’s statement that he allowed “distinctions to be blurred” was a tacit admission that he had breached paragraph 7.1 of the code, which requires ministers to ensure that no conflict arises or is perceived to arise “between their public duties and their private interests”. The only issue, Murphy said, was “on how many grounds and on how many occasions” the code was breached.
One key issue is whether Werrity benefited financially from his relationship with Fox. In response to questions on this subject, Fox said that Werritty was “not dependent on any transactional behaviour” at his MoD meetings “to maintain his income”.
The Defence Secretary’s future now depends entirely on how Cameron responds when he receives the MoD’s full review on 21 October.