The British Defence Secretary – who’s already had a bad 18 months (as documented here before) due to leaks, more leaks, bickering and resentment about the SDSR – has managed to top the horror by getting himself embroiled in an incredibly voluntary media storm, because of a particularly keen friendship he has with his best man.
Now, whilst the good Dr and I are not natural political bed-fellows, I think you have to start by saying that he has not been, in defence terms, a bad Secretary of State. Indeed his natural Thatcherite inclinations means he has been stronger on defence, and in defence of defence than the Prime Minister and those in the Cabinet Office who pull the strings. He is also, by account, a decent bloke and having very briefly been in a room with him at the Army yearbook launch recently, I think that is probably true. But keen readers will know this kind of build-up always leads to a but… and the but is this.
One, if you’re at war in two different countries you cannot afford your defence secretary to be fretting about whether he’s about to get binned or not. Similarly you might say he should have been Chairing more meetings about the SDSR and defence reform in general than meeting up with his mate, but there you go…. But the man in charge having his eye off the ball might be important, not only for the ephemeral ‘morale’ (in the MoD – which is bruised, but also in the forces too).
Two, his political danglies are well and truly in the vice now. If he survives, he’s massively compromised, even with backbench support. As someone who stood against Cameron he is already low on the Number 10 xmas card list. The SDSR leaks probably saw that standing drop a little more. I would wager that in a risk-free world Cameron would love to drop him. And this is why Cameron is playing a blinder right now. To have dropped him straight away would have had the risk of seeing a ‘martyred’ big beast roaming the back benches with views (and remember that Fox has views on lots of things, partly through the number of briefs he’s held as a shadow and now in government and also because he coveted the role of leader) and support. A vibrant Fox on the backbenches potentially threatens the coalition and Cameron’s own premiership (should he hit upon rocky times). But in allowing a stay of political execution until 21stOctober, the Prime Minister can sit back and see. If his minister survives, he can cash in on Fox’s drop in political capital. If he goes, it’s because there’s either smoking gun evidence of a breach of the ministerial code, or because the media have not given up on the story. Either is enough to do for the good Dr I think, and to leave the PM smelling of cherubic roses. So, for the MoD this is a bad, bad news story… a minister who has stuck up for them sunk below the waterline, or a fresh Cameron pick eager to tow the line. If Main Building wasn’t moody enough…
Three, sometimes it’s not enough to have done proper wrong.. to have done wrong. The interesting thing about the Parliamentary ding-dong yesterday was that it was clear that the opposition benches, and indeed the journalists posing questions to the PM were absolutely cast-iron certain (and not in a points scoring way, in a it’s so true way) that Fox has done wrong.. and yet there is, to use the phrase, no obvious smoking gun, nor a neat paper trail that sees the stumps flying. It just doesn’t feel or smell right. And whilst Fox and his supporters might say that a sense is just not good enough in this case, the aura of being right and showing good judgement is really important. I’m going to go with the idea that nothing improper occurred in the impromptu meeting with defence investors (there’s no evidence to contradict this) and yet in an industry that has frankly struggled with its image, good judgement would have been to have walked quickly out of the restaurant, to have found the nearest telephone and to have told the PUS that there were investment people in the restaurant who wanted to chat, but by God I ran away… and it’s important to have done so, because the court of public opinion is a much cynical place, and now we’re all just wondering, and speculating.
Now that Number 10 has taken the reins of the investigation, I doubt this will go all the way to the 21st October. From a pure defence perspective, it’s difficult to know what to want from this episode, other than it to end quickly one way or another. I get the sense that Fox might be retained, actually. And if he is, he’s going to need all of his cunning (oh, come on.. it’s the first play on Fox in the whole piece…) to stave off a Cabinet Office eager to subsume defence within its security ambit.