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15 October 2011

Why “badly wounded“ Fox remains a problem for Cameron

Tory backbenchers hope ex-Defence Secretary will help fight Liberal Democrat "nonsense".

By Jon Bernstein

One of the reasons it was said that David Cameron was reluctant to get rid of Liam Fox — even when the weight of evidence was stacked against the now ex-Defence Secretary — was a fear that Fox could cause trouble on the backbenches. A standard bearer of the party’s right — “the most influential Thatcherite in the Government”, in the words of this morning’s Telegraph — Fox could provide the leadership disgruntled Tories crave.

Will he?

Nick Robinson, the BBC Political Editor, told the Today Programme this morning that he thought that was unlikely because Fox has been “quite badly wounded” by the events of the past week. That’s true and there will be further embarrassment when the results of Gus O’Donnell’s inquiry into the Adam Werritty affair are published early next week — but wounds heal and Fox may yet offer a rallying point around which the Tory right can gather.

That’s certainly the hope of Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough and an influential member of the backbench 1922 Committee.

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Speaking just before Robinson on Radio 4, Bone said that the “silver lining” of Fox’s exit is that the Tory backbenches had got stronger. Fox, he said, would help “move the coalition government in a certain direction”. Asked to define that direction he said:

Unfortunately because of the coalition government Conservative policies are being held back and the Prime Minister has his arms tied behind his back half the time by the Liberals . . . I’m there to help [Cameron] by pushing the government towards Conservative policies and stop some of the Liberal nonsense we have.

He clearly believes Fox will be there to support him in this endeavour.

(Bone has form when it comes to taking on the Prime Minister, or “helping” him as he suggests here. When, in May 2010, Cameron tried to reform the 1922 Committee by allowing frontbench involvement, Bone led the very personal charge against the new Prime Minister. “You wouldn’t get away with that in an African state,” he said of the proposal. When 118 backbenchers rebelled, Cameron backed down — it was his first U-turn coming just 14 days after he entered number 10.)

Back to today’s Telegraph editorial:

Thatcherite Tories already felt under-represented in a Government led by a Macmillanite Old Etonian; Mr Cameron must be careful that, with Dr Fox on the back benches, this wing of his party does not become even more isolated.

The paragraph ends:

Equally, Dr Fox should have the good sense and the good grace to support the Coalition and not allow himself to become a focal point for Tory discontent.

It will be interesting see which Liam Fox re-emerges in a few months time.

A couple of months before last year’s election, the New Statesman listed the ten people on the right Cameron should fear. Number five on that list was Fox. We wrote:

Though it is unlikely he will overtly undermine Cameron while remaining on the front bench, Fox sees himself as a possible future leader, and would certainly stand next time there is a vacancy. In the meantime, he is a danger to the party’s leadership because he will seek to pull it further to the right.

Incidentally, Ladbrokes is offering 25/1 on the former Defence Secretary becoming the next prime minister.