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10 October 2011

Despite the apology, Liam Fox has more questions to answer

Further claims in this morning's papers.

By Jon Bernstein

Later today, David Cameron will receive an interim report into the working relationship between Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Adam Werritty. For those new to the story, Werritty is an old friend of Fox, best man at his wedding, a man who made 14 visits to the MoD in just over 12 months and used to brandish a business card which carried a portcullis logo and read: “Adivsor to Rt. Hon. Dr. Liam Fox MP”.

Last night, Fox issued an apology* — more “sorry for the way events have been interpreted” than “sorry for my actions”, in truth — that he hopes will do enough to keep him in post. Will it? There are many who believe it will, or at least that it should, among them Iain Dale, Fraser Nelson and Benedict Brogan.

But two revelations in this morning’s papers demand further answers from the Defence Secretary. Firstly, the Daily Telegraph has dusted off its MPs’ expenses CD and discovered that Werritty was “paid with taxpayers’ money as a parliamentary researcher”. In the key passage in this morning’s story, James Kirkup, the paper’s political correspondent, writes:

The papers disclose that in 2005/06, Dr Fox’s Commons office budgeted for a £690 National Insurance payment relating to Mr Werritty’s employment.

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The payment suggests that he had been employed by Dr Fox in the previous year. At the time, Mr Werritty was the director of a company called UK Health. Since Mr Werritty has never been issued with a House of Commons security pass, the payment will raise questions about what work he was doing for the MP’s office.

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Meanwhile, the Guardian has more on a meeting between Fox and Dubai-based Harvey Boulter earlier this year that was allegedly brokered with the help of Werritty. According to the paper, the meeting at the five star Shangri-la Hotel took place after Boulter paid a lobbying firm. Again, here is the key passage:

[A]n invoice, seen by the Guardian, shows that Boulter enlisted the services of a lobbying firm to help him skip layers of bureaucracy and meet Fox for an urgent meeting on the 41st floor of the hotel.

The invoice shows Boulter paid Tetra Strategy £10,000 for “project fees”. It is understood that the fees covered fixing up media interviews and political lobbying.

Emails seen by the Guardian show the boss of Tetra, Lee Petar, had been working to arrange a meeting between Boulter and Fox or Werritty since 25 March. This throws further doubt on Fox’s claim that the controversial encounter took place after a chance meeting between Werritty and Boulter over dinner in Dubai in April.

To date, Fox has apologised once and corrected his version of events on at least one occasion. Will he be forced to so again? And more importantly, will Cameron — who doesn’t particularly relish the prospect of the Eurosceptic, favourite of the party’s right on the backbenches — accept Fox’s version of events?

*Here is Fox’s apology in full:

I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend. I am sorry for this. At no stage did I or my Department provide classified information or briefings to Mr Werritty or assist with his commercial work – let alone benefit personally from this work.

Nevertheless, I do accept that given Mr Werritty’s defence related business interests, my frequent contacts with him may have given an impression of wrongdoing, and may also have given third parties the misleading impression that Mr Werritty was an official adviser rather than simply a friend.

I have learned lessons from this experience. I accept that with the benefit of hindsight I should have taken much greater care to ensure that any meetings with Adam Werritty, at which defence and security related issues were raised, were properly attended by officials and recorded – to protect myself and the Government from any suggestion of wrongdoing. With respect to my meeting with Mr Boulter in Dubai in June 2011, I accept that it was wrong to meet with a commercial supplier, without the presence of an official.

I have apologised to the Prime Minister and agreed with my Permanent Secretary to put in place new procedures to ensure that this does not happen again. My Permanent Secretary will report her interim findings to the Cabinet Secretary tomorrow. It is important that this process is allowed to run its course. I will answer all questions in the House of Commons.