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In a less shameless world, Liam Fox’s career would have ended in 2011

Or to give him his full title, the disgraced former defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox.

There’s a late, unlamented Twitter account that died a death some time in 2011. @itsJOSSnotJOSH was either a bot or possibly just someone with far too much time on their hands, but either way, it existed entirely to reply to tweets mentioning the TV and film writer “Josh Whedon” to tell them they’d got his name wrong.

Were I remotely capable of coding I think I’d set up a similar bot. I’ve been doing this manually, when I have the time, but automation would make my operation so much more efficient. Here’s what my bot would do. Whenever someone mentioned Liam Fox, it would tweet them with a reminder that he should more properly be referred to by his full title of “the disgraced former defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox”.

That’s because Fox, the MP for North Somerset and baffling darling of the Tory right, was humiliatingly forced to tender his resignation from the Cabinet in 2011. He was forced to resign because he had done a very bad thing. Fox should be considered, on any sensible definition, in disgrace.

But Liam Fox himself would, understandably, like everyone to forget about this. He’s likely to be a big figure in campaign for Brexit. He’s started popping up in polls of Tory members asking who they would back as the next party leader. And, asked this week if he would consider running again for the leadership that he failed to bag in 2005, Fox replied, without undue modesty, “Never say never”.

Well. Sometimes, actually, one should say never. This is an excellent case in point. Dr Liam Fox, the disgraced former defence secretary, should never be leader of the Conservative party. In a better world, in fact, he would never be allowed to hold another government job. Why? Because he was forced to resign from the Cabinet in disgrace.

Let’s remind ourselves what Fox did. He allowed his close friend and best man, Adam Werrity, to take up an unofficial and undeclared role in which he attended meetings at the Ministry of Defence without first obtaining security clearance. Werrity had access to Fox’s diary, printed business cards announcing himself as his advisor, and even joined him at meetings with foreign dignitaries.

An investigation by then cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell found that Fox had shown a lack of judgement by blurring the lines between his official role and his personal friendships. His report concluded: “The disclosure outside the MoD of details about future visits overseas posed a degree of security risk not only to Dr Fox, but also to the accompanying official party.”

Once upon a time a porous boundary between the personal and the professional, especially when it touched on matters of national security, was a breach big enough to end a career. John Profumo left politics altogether and spent 30 years cleaning toilets to atone for his mistakes. Fox, though, has hung around the back benches feeling hard done by and waiting for the moment to return to his rightful place. He is, in the most literal sense, shameless.

The media must take its share of the blame for this. Fox’s slow motion rehabilitation has been enabled largely by the fact that time-pressed reporters and producers have often turned to him when they need a good quote attacking the government from the right. Under the circumstances, it probably felt a bit off to make too much of his ignominious departure from office.

Tony Blair should probably share the blame, too. Under his government, being forced to resign from office stopped being something that could terminate a career and became a sort of political sin bin. Ministers who mucked things up were forced out of their posts in double quick time to prevent that day’s scandal from dominating the news cycle, but then, once a suitable period had elapsed, were allowed to come crawling back. The repeated resurrection of Peter Mandelson set a nasty precedent that would later pave the way for David Laws to return to office, too.

All this strikes me as a bad thing. For while the sin bin approach is perhaps reasonable in some cases, it lets other miscreants off the hook far too easily. There are some mistakes a politician can make for which banishment from public life is an entirely proportionate punishment. There are some errors which should disqualify one from ever holding high office again.

Fox’s, I feel, are of this latter sort. He showed a worrying lack of judgement, and an even more concerning lack of remorse. He was right to resign his office; he is wrong to think he is owed a path back.

I doubt I’ll ever make my Twitter bot: it sounds far too much like hard work to me. But I will, whenever the mood strikes, keep reminding people that Dr Liam Fox, the former defence secretary and MP for North Somerset, was forced to resign from the Cabinet because of his own errors of judgement. Liam Fox should more properly known as “the disgraced former defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox”.

Because he is, isn’t he? He’s disgraced. Dr Liam Fox is in disgrace. And in a less shameless world, he’d never have a hope of returning to high office ever again.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.