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Wednesday, September 29, 2010 

Liam Fox and a truly appalling leak.

It is remarkable, is it not, just how little comment there's been about the calling in of the police, albeit the Ministry of Defence police, to search for the source of the leak of a letter from Liam Fox to David Cameron which sets out in no uncertain terms just how the Strategic Defence and Strategy Review is going to affect his department? The nearest obvious comparison to make is with the arrest of Damian Green a little less than 2 years ago, having received numerous Home Office documents from Chris Galley, a civil servant who had previously applied to work for none other than Damian Green.

Clearly this isn't anywhere near as serious as this hasn't involved anti-terrorist police entering parliament and actually arresting an MP. Nonetheless, it still seems to be an over-the-top reaction to a leak which many would claim to have been in the public interest, regardless of how it involved private correspondence with the prime minister. The letter, while about national security, does not potentially put anyone in actual danger and should definitely not breach the Official Secrets Act. Things do however seem just as murky as they initially were in the Damian Green case: supposedly the MoD doesn't know who ordered the search, or at least wasn't telling the press.

Murkier still is that most initial suspicions as to who leaked the letter fell on Fox himself. Throughout the summer there's been numerous stories about how Fox has been doing battle against the Treasury, most notably over the potential replacement of Trident, with the MoD arguing for it to be paid for out of a separate fund from the defence budget, with George Osborne apparently refusing to budge. The letter however goes even further, Fox directly spelling exactly what might be lost should the SDSR turn into a more comprehensive spending review. It reads, as Mark Urban just said on Newsnight, like it was made to be leaked, with Fox appealing almost desperately and hinting at the consequences politically for the coalition should things continue as they are going, risking have their words on defence being the government's first priority being thrown back at them, the morale of the armed forces potentially damaged. It in fact surely edges into hyperbole; after all, this was a government which also came to power pledging to cut heavily. Liam Fox knew damn well that there were going to be "draconian" cuts; he himself argued for them, and it's not as if the defence budget isn't ripe for savings.

Special pleading similar to that from Fox is doubtless going on across Whitehall as October the 20th looms ever closer. Would however a minister go so far as to leak a letter himself, or if not, get an aide or sympathiser to do so? Without knowing who called in the MoD police, and on what authority, it's difficult to able to ascertain whether Fox would have taken the risk; did Cameron suggest the inquiry so as to be certain that his defence secretary isn't playing him off against the right-wing press, always sensitive to any sort of defence cuts? As ever, the question primarily has to be who benefits, and it's fairly clear that for the moment at least it's Fox, however much he protests about how appalling it is that such private letters have found their way into the hands of the Telegraph. More than anything, it just proves the point that you can change the government, but you can't change how they react when the press gets hold of "sensitive" information. Should something which benefits Labour and not the defence secretary go missing, one has to wonder what the response will then be.

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