The Week in Politics: Going foxhunting

If anyone did feel sorry for him, they had only themselves to blame.

By Ian Dunt

Liam Fox started the week saying how "deeply suspect" the motives of his critics were. That particular attack, which should be commended for its dramatic overtones, did not quite last 24 hours. By mid-afternoon he had apologised. It was one of those special political apologies which begs forgiveness not for the speaker's action, but for the idiocy of those who had misunderstood them. "I'm sorry if I caused offence" – that sort of thing. In this case, Fox resolutely denied having done anything wrong, but apologised for giving the "impression" of having done something wrong.

'Impression' is a problematic political concept, not least because it has a place in the ministerial code. "Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests," section 7.1 reads. Luckily, the ministerial code is less a code and more of a light-hearted guide, a sort of Lonely Planet for political ethics. David Cameron decides if someone's broken it and if so, what should happen to them. You might think that sounds like a laughable anachronism unable to provide accountability or inspire public confidence. This is because you are a dangerous radical.

The apology prompted a strange reaction from Downing Street, which made a lot of noise about an earlier-than-expected preliminary report which would be on David Cameron's desk by the time he got in Monday morning. Alas, Monday morning came and there was no preliminary report. Instead, there was just a prime minister's spokesman insisting the defence secretary had Cameron's "full confidence". Under New Labour this was code for "he's wearing his death mask", but political journalists have been slow to realise that the new prime minister usually means it.

An impressively choreographed display of political symbolism took place in the Commons that afternoon, as Fox made a statement to the House flanked by George Osborne and his full Treasury team, with Iain Duncan Smith standing off to the side, like an archer defending a castle. Even his old adversary, David Davies, had wonderful things to say about the defence secretary.

Quite why was unclear. Fox had taken Adam Werritty, a personal acquaintance, with him on 18 foreign trips in as many months. You may have noticed that he was keener on the more exotic journeys to Hong Kong and Dubai than he was the visits to charmless eastern European locations. Reports suggest he was funded by a shadowy collection of right-wing neo-conservatives to whisper terrible, world-ending thoughts into the defence secretary's ear. It’s not entirely clear why you would pay for someone to whisper terrible right-wing thoughts into the ears of a terrible right-winger, but money does strange things to people. It’s such a clear-cut case of potential corruption that to allow him to stay would be insanity, as most senior politicians, civil servants, journalists and generals seem to agree.

Labour did a strange little dance around the Fox subject, issuing increasingly bitter statements but holding back from demanding his resignation. Instead, the party busied itself demanding endless inquiries. First, it demanded new terms of reference for the Cabinet secretary inquiry. Then it wanted it handed over to Sir Philip Mawer, independent advisor on ministerial standards. Then it wanted a separate inquiry by the Electoral Commission. After all that, they were presumably too tired to demand a scalp.

Towards the end of the week the predictable issue of genitals and things in which they are placed arose. This was regrettable for three reasons. Firstly, because it was irrelevant. Secondly, because it less interesting than high-level international cover-ups. And finally because, and this is the really important part, it threatened to make people feel sorry for Fox.

As this is typed, the internet is abuzz with chatter of a Fox resignation. Perhaps by the time you read this he will have gone. Perhaps he will still be around for a while. But the idea that he could survive this is absurd. If Liam Fox makes it through this crisis, we might as well allow ministers to go shopping naked with the nuclear code tattooed on their backside. It will simply be impossible to be sacked by David Cameron.

Update: Liam Fox resigned around ten minutes after this feature was posted