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Tuesday, October 18, 2011 

More blurring of the lines.

To call Gus O'Donnell's report into the allegations against Liam Fox (its actual title no less) a slight document is to put it very kindly. At all of ten pages and around 2,700 words it's shorter than some of my more extravagant posts on here, which it has to be said probably says more about me than it does about the cabinet secretary. It does those raise the question of just why it took him more than a week to produce it, and also why it was repeatedly delayed today; it certainly wasn't for proof-reading, as wags have had it, as it contains at least a couple of errors often found on the average quickly thrashed out blog entry. Whether it was, as Craig Murray suggests, down to No 10 demanding certain paragraphs or comments be excised we'll most likely never know.

Those 10 pages do however contain damning criticism of our dear friend Foxy and in turn his dear friend Werritty, albeit delivered in the finest mandarinese. As Fox himself was quick to trumpet, it does clear him of personally profiting from this friendship with Werritty, but then no one was seriously suggesting that this was a matter of immediate personal enrichment with Werritty as his fence. Fox in his statement also pointed to how O'Donnell decided there was no breach of national security, but he strangely overlooked how his disclosure of future foreign visits to his best mate "posed a degree of security risk" not only to Fox himself but also to the accompanying party of diplomats and civil servants. Still, they don't matter much, it was only a degree of risk, and Fox has accepted such disclosures were "not appropriate".

If O'Donnell's report was somewhat nobbled by Downing Street, then he at least deserves praise for the sheer manner of the skewering of Fox. He adopts the "blurring of the lines" half-apology first used by Fox himself and twists it into him repeatedly, you suspect with abundant glee at the absurdity of the formulation, as he and everyone else knows that this was no "blurring of the lines" on the Fox's behalf; it was entirely deliberate. Fox and up until now the Conservative party as a whole have tried to play this as a simple, relatively uninteresting affair involving a minister allowing his slightly clingy friend to tag along with him on meetings, ignoring completely that someone had to be paying for Werritty to gallivant around the world pretending to be an official adviser.

We already knew that Fox had directly solicited a donation from Jon Moulton for Werritty's company Pargav, which it seems was set-up to replace the Atlantic Bridge, Fox's forced to disband neo-con charity. O'Donnell reveals the other donors are names involved from the beginning, some of them also being contributors to Conservative party funds. Three have pro-Israel connections, although it's possible to stretch this too far: one of those named, Mick Davis, last year had the temerity to suggest that the current Israeli government "lacked a strategy on the peace process". Leaving aside that it's very clear that it does have a strategy on it, which is to make a Palestinian state impossible through constant delay, claiming not to have a partner and settlement building, he hardly strikes as having an Israel first mindset like Melanie Phillips.

They do however obviously want to know what their money is paying for. Giving money directly to the Tories is one thing; why fund Fox's pal unless he's doing something that civil servants either can't or won, with presumably end results. This is what O'Donnell is hinting at when he writes

The links between Dr Fox and Mr Werritty means that the donations given to Mr Werritty could at least be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest.

With his remit preventing him from investigating or commenting any further, he has to leave it at that, while going on to say there is no evidence that Pargav sought to win contracts, something it was clearly not formed to do in any case, nor that Werritty lobbied Fox on behalf of the donors, something that he didn't have to do when Fox was in one instance in personal contact with one!

That Fox had then broken the ministerial code was obvious. What this report leaves completely unanswered and was always going to was what exactly Werritty's true role was, something that Fox doesn't want to talk about and neither does the Conservative party. Werritty, bless him, is apparently consulting the lawyers for his part. For instance, why is it that Werritty's most well documented engagements are with representatives of Israel and Sri Lanka, the latter of which Fox has had a long association with? Was he operating, as has been suggested, as a link in Fox's shadow foreign policy, aimed at giving more support, both moral and economical to two highly controversial foreign countries with poor human rights records? MI6 was so interested in what Werritty had been talking about that they debriefed him. Who else in government, other than the two junior defence ministers, knew about Werritty and when, especially the four who served on the Atlantic Bridge's advisory council? Why is there so little apparent interest and comment from within the party on exactly what Fox was up to when it so obviously seems to be at odds with official government policy?

The key difference between this and David Cameron's prescient feeling about lobbying is that lobbyists usually work to persuade a minister one way or the other over an issue that personally concerns them. Liam Fox was essentially employing a friend to represent his true interests in government in an unofficial capacity, funded by lobbyists who shared his values. The Liberal Democrats, perhaps worried about further antagonising the Tory right and the potential for Chris Huhne to be next, have barely said a word about the entire affair and this sordid conflict of interest. Without them raising their voices the chance of a full inquiry or even an expanded one into what Fox 'n' Werritty wanted and were doing is next to nil, even when it is so obviously vital that we get to the bottom of this covert operation at the very heart of the Ministry of Defence.

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