The return of the old fashioned Tory scandal

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by a Newsnet reporter

Liam Fox has built his political career on an image of traditional right wing Conservatism.  It is perhaps fitting then that he finds himself embroiled in a traditional right wing Conservative scandal.   Pressure is increasing on the Defence Secretary to clarify the nature of his relationship with Adam Werritty after film and email evidence came to light which seemingly contradict Dr Fox’s previous statements.

by a Newsnet reporter

Liam Fox has built his political career on an image of traditional right wing Conservatism.  It is perhaps fitting then that he finds himself embroiled in a traditional right wing Conservative scandal.   Pressure is increasing on the Defence Secretary to clarify the nature of his relationship with Adam Werritty after film and email evidence came to light which seemingly contradict Dr Fox’s previous statements.

Jim Murphy MP, Labour’s shadow defence spokesman, said yesterday that Dr Fox had given him a personal assurance that a business meeting in Dubai, attended by Dr Fox in his capacity as Defence Minister, had been organised through proper channels and that a senior civil servant from the MoD had been present throughout.  

Dr Fox met with representatives of a company called Cellcrypt, which hoped to sell voice encryption technology to the MoD.  However it has now transpired that the meeting had been brokered and arranged by Mr Werritty and that no MoD officials had been in attendance.  

Mr Murphy said he would ask Dr Fox to make an emergency parliamentary statement on Monday.

Dr Fox had strongly denied that Mr Werritty had been present at any of his official meetings with representatives of foreign governments.  However film footage obtained by the Guardian newspaper showed Mr Werritty shaking hands with President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka when the Sinhalese leader met with Dr Fox on a visit to London last year.  

Dr Fox had also claimed that the Dubai meeting, which took place in June this year, had been an “accidental encounter”.  However emails obtained by the Guardian show that Mr Werritty had been trying to broker a meeting between Cellcrypt’s boss Harvey Boulter and the Defence Secretary since April.  Speaking to the Guardian on Saturday night, Mr Boulter said: “The fact that a meeting was going to happen was pre-arranged in April.  A meeting with the MoD doesn’t happen by chance.”

Mr Werritty is a close personal friend and business associate of the Defence Secretary.  The two men previously shared a flat together, and Mr Werritty was best man at Dr Fox’s wedding.  Mr Werritty’s career closely mirrors that of Dr Fox’s.  When Dr Fox was Conservative spokesman for health, Mr Werritty was company director of UK Health Ltd, in which Dr Fox was a major investor.  

Mr Werritty was until recently the executive director and sole employee of a charity, Atlantic Bridge, set up by Dr Fox to “promote the special relationship between the UK and the USA”.  Mr Werritty reportedly received over £90,000 for his work for the organisation.  The charity was closed earlier this year after a damning report by the Charity Commission ruled that it had failed to meet any of its original objectives and its actions “may lead members of the public to call into question its independence from party politics”.  

Over recent weeks there have been a series of claims that Dr Fox’s business and personal relationship with Mr Werritty have been in breach of ministerial code of conduct.  Although not on any government payroll and without any security clearance, Mr Werritty passed out business cards bearing the Portcullis logo of the Westminster Parliament and describing himself as an “advisor” to the Defence Secretary.

It then came to light that the Defence Secretary and Mr Werritty have gone on at least four foreign trips together when Dr Fox was travelling in his official capacity as Defence Secretary.  Issues of commercial significance and national security were apparently discussed with foreign government representatives and others during these trips.  Dr Fox is now being asked to clarify whether Mr Werritty had any commercial interests in these meetings, and to specify the capacity in which Mr Werritty was acting.

Questions have also been asked about why Mr Werritty has made 14 visits to Dr Fox at the Ministry of Defence in the past 16 months and what was discussed at these meetings.  The Independent on Sunday further claimed that Mr Werritty had “freedom to roam” at Dr Fox’s official apartment at Admiralty Arch, which is home to the official residences of a number of government ministers.

In what many commentators saw as an attempt to forestall questions, Dr Fox announced on Friday that he had asked Ursula Brennan, the chief civil servant within the MoD to conduct an enquiry into the matter.  In interviews on Saturday, Dr Fox refused to reply to any questions about his relationship with Mr Werritty, saying that the matter was now under investigation.

However Dr Fox’s own departmental investigation, which was it thought would take a couple of weeks to come to any conclusion, has now been pre-empted by the Prime Minister’s office.  In a dramatic intervention on Saturday night, David Cameron let it be known that he wants the affair to be investigated by Sir Gus O’Donell, the chief of the civil service, and wants a report on his desk by Monday.  

The Prime Minister’s intervention suggested to many commentators that David Cameron no longer has confidence in his defence minister.  There is little love lost between the two men.  Dr Fox stood against Mr Cameron in the Conservative leadership election.  In November last year a letter by Dr Fox critical of Cameron’s handling of the Defence Review was ‘leaked’ to the media.  Sources close to Number 10 believe that Dr Fox’s office was responsible for the leak.  

The Independent on Sunday newspaper has reported that Sir Gus’s investigation will look into Mr Werritty’s role in acting as a consultant in defence deals.  According to a senior MoD official who spoke to the newspaper, “This man [Mr Werritty] appears to have been involved in arms contracts all over the place. If he has been involved with less favourable regimes, even if they are perfectly legal, it would be hugely embarrassing for the minister.”

Speculation was mounting last night that Dr Fox would be unlikely to remain as Defence Secretary for long.