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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.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.