Comment: Fox survival relies on perception, not facts

The chorus of innuendo is now strong enough to rob Fox of his position regardless of what actually happened.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

With all the bad economic news that's dominated the headlines in the past few weeks it's actually quite refreshing to see something different, so we should be pleased the Liam Fox scandal is all over the front pages this morning.

In many ways there's nothing the British public enjoy more than a good political scandal, especially if it involves a high ranking politician. This one seems to have it all; allegations of cronyism, jet-setting trips abroad, meetings with foreign leaders and the all-important security angle. All it lacks is a sexual element to make it the perfect newspaper splash.

The general rule for politicians in the modern era is that if a scandal remains on the front pages for more than seven days then the figure in question has to go. As a result party leaders are now much more ruthless than they used to be when dealing with such issues. If you look back at the Profumo scandal of the 1960s, that dominated the headlines for months, fatally undermining Macmillan's government. Cameron and others in the party will also remember the way John Major dithered over scandals during his administration, such as the David Mellor affair. By giving Mellor his full support only for him to resign soon after Major was made to look weak and indecisive.

What's interesting here is the speed with which David Cameron moved. When the story broke before the weekend he initially gave Fox his full support before qualifying it slightly and demanding that the two week inquiry that had been set up actually report back on Monday. This begs the question of whether a reliable and in-depth inquiry can discover anything useful in just three days. Regardless of whether it clears or damns Liam Fox, people within the party and the press will use its shortness as an excuse to doubt the findings. Cameron has possibly shot himself in the foot here as if the initial report does clear Fox then he'll be forced to keep giving him his full backing and I suspect that more facts and evidence have yet to emerge. The days when governments could have a quick inquiry, declare that the MP had been found perfectly innocent and then expect the media to drop it and move on are long since past. The press have scented blood in the water and will now spend a fortune looking for further evidence.

The reality is that Liam Fox's survival at this point depends more on perception than hard facts. There seems to be a momentum building up amongst the public and the media that even if he didn't personally benefit from any of these arrangements and meetings his judgement was still seriously flawed. Part of the problem is that Liam Fox is not an inexperienced newly elected backbencher, in which case it might be excusable. He’s been a frontbench politician for over a decade now and has lived through the media blitz of the John Major government and the more recent expenses scandal. It should have occurred to him sooner that those outside the Westminster bubble might see something wrong in his repeated meetings with Adam Werritty at the Ministry of Defence and abroad. The fact that Werritty was at one point handing out business cards claiming that he was an advisor to Fox should certainly have set the alarm bells ringing.

If the report does raise serious questions about Liam Fox's judgement then I fully expect the party whips to step in and have a quiet word. They’ll advise him to resign rather than try to hang on as that way it saves Cameron the embarrassment of sacking him. I suspect that they'll also try to sweeten the pill by hinting that once this has all died down and there's been a fuller inquiry he could perhaps return to government at some stage. After all, David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson both returned to the front benches after their scandals, although the national security angle might make it significantly more difficult in Fox's case. Either way, his career has been seriously damaged and this might be the first major political casualty of Cameron's government.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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