PMQs and Liam Fox debate as-it-happened
Follow this week's PMQs and the debate on Liam Fox with politics.co.uk's live blog.
11:00 – Good morning. Hope you have a violin to hand because it's time for the last act in the tragi-comedy that was Liam Fox's ministerial career. We kick off with PMQs, where Ed Miliband may or may not raise the issue, but backbench Labour MPs most certainly will. Then Sir George Young gets up to issue a statement on the report by Sir Gus O'Donnell, which was released late yesterday. After that, it's Fox's time to get up and issue a personal statement. The exact nutritional levels of the humble pie he will be eating are unclear. His statement yesterday was decidedly frosty, stressing what he didn't do wrong much more than it focused on what he did do wrong. That taps into a widespread suspicion around Westminster that the report was substantially changed between its tabled release time of 10:00 BST and the actual one, around 17:30 BST. I know, I know. These conspiracy theory nuts. They're dangerous radicals. It's not clear how far towards that attack Labour are prepared to go, but the party will definately criticise the report and allude to the idea that the prime minister is protecting his boys.
11:06 – If you need to scrub up on what's happened in the Fox row this week, here's our news story on yesterday's report, here's the report in full, here's Downing Street's response and here's Liam Fox's statement. If you need to jog the memory about last week's events, check out the Week in Politics, written delightfully by yours truly.
11:29 – One thing to look out for is the extent of support for Fox on the Tory backbenches – and even the front bench. Andrew Lansley told Radio 5 it was "a bit harsh" to suggest Fox's front bench career was over. One wonders what he would actually have to do. Start a coup against Britain? His tone matters because it will give us some idea of how he will adapt to life on the backbenches. As a figurehead for right-wingers, Fox could be about to amass more influence than he had at the Cabinet table. First test: next week's vote on an EU referendum. It looks like David Cameron won't be in the chamber for the Fox section by the way, because Ken Clarke has been propped up to lead on the justice and security green paper in between PMQs and the Fox statement. Of course, if you believe for one moment that the timetable reflects a desire for Cameron to be out of the chamber, you are, once again, falling victim to superficial conspiracy theory. At the lobby, the prime minister's spokesman is refusing to comment on whether there's a way back into Cabinet for Fox. OK, kick off is at 12:00 BST. See you then.
11:56 – Just a few minutes to go while northern Ireland questions winds down. The usual caveat for those of you here for the first time: There will be typos and possibly a range of grammatical and logical errors. The former we will fix once its over, the latter two we rather enjoy. Cameron just took his seat. He checks his notes while Osborne gazes ahead, like an electrical product without batteries. Hammond, Fox's successor, is leaning forward checking his papers.
12:02 – It's the anniversary of the Jarrow march, Stephen Hepburn (Lab, Bob Crow look-a-like) says. Will Cameron support workers? Cameron delivers a dribbly answer about supporting workers and ensuring more jobs in the private sector. Tedious exchange. Nick Clegg visibly losing the will to live. Oliver Colvile (Con, police inspector in sixties BBC drama) asks about marine research. It's such a dull question Cameron is forced to commend him for it.
12:00 – Hammond is so tedius my eyes struggle to rest on his image. They forget what they're supposed to be doing and drift off to look at other things. Next to him, Pickles looks like Pickles, which is as unpleasant a metaphore as I can construct. Cameron is up.
12:05 – Miliband is up. Behind him, Ed Balls is visibly falling apart. He leads on Fox, saying he had an unofficial adviser funded by undeclared donations. How did he (Cameron) allow this to happen. Cameron says it was important and that's why he set up the investigation. It's worth recognising that Fox recognised his mistake, Cameron says. Labour jeers. "This week of all weeks, show a bit of humility, eh," Miliband counters. Drama in the Commons. Miliband says there's a network of individuals funding Werritty, some with links to the Tories or the Cabinet. WIll Cameron categorically guarantee that no other minister has been engaging in similar activities?
12:07 – Highly ill-advised section from Cameron as he lists Labour scandals. "If you're going to jump on a bandwagon make sure it's still moving," Cameron says weakly. Miliband highlights that he didn't answer the question. The Labour leader landing blows here. "The minister in question has resigned. You're just a bit late," Cameron retorts. We'll have to wait to see how the rest of the lobby interpreted that, but to me it looked hugely complacent. Questioning switches to other MPs. That's a mistake – Miliband should have stayed on the same subject.
12:09 – Mark Durkan (SDLP, barely concealed rage) asks about a murder case I am not well enough acquanted with to discuss properly. Really can't state what a strategic mistake it is for Miliband to adopt a new line of questioning. Very irritating and a major error of political judgement. Steve Rotheram (Lab, fifth Beatle) asks about Hillsborough. If it's proven there was an orchestrated cover-up, justice should still prevail, he says. Cameron says the paper will be published. Total silence in the Commons. He says he's sympathetic to the families of the victims, but doesn't answer the question.
12:13 – Miliband again. He says unemployment is at its highest level since the last Tory government. Now inflation is at the same level. Does the PM still think his plan is working? Cameron says the last time CPI was this high was in 2008. The reason for increasing VAT was to get on top of the deficit, Cameron argues. Miliband says we have the highest inflation of any EU country other than Estonia. "His plan is not working and he just refuses to change course," Miliband says. he asks about the regional growth fund. How many businesses have had cash paid out?
12:15 – Cameron answers in future tense – it "will be distributing" billions, he says. "I don't think he knows the answer," Miliband observers. Two businesses have been helped, he says, while thousands go bankrupt. "All we've got is a prime minister who is hopelessly out of touch," MIliband says. Big cheers. Cameron says all Miliband wants to do "is talk down the economy". I've been doing this job too long. I still remember Gordon Brown barking that weekly at Cameron. Very depressing, and possibly a touch complacent. "There is not one single country in Europe that would have such a crazy plan" as Labour's, Cameron says. Huge noise. Cameron fiercly attacks Ed Balls. Balls, still as an assasin, stares Cameron in the eye and makes a flat signal with his hand. "Flat," he whispers. "Flat." Great stuff.
12:19 – Well I have to say that section went very well for Miliband. Cameron looked evasive, out of touch and lacking in information. That chalks up as a win for Miliband, but the real prize was Fox and Miliband failed to act on his feet when the weakness was there for all to see. Still, a good week for the Labour leader. Miliband: 3 Cameron: 1.
12:21 – John Spellar(Lab, rigid) wants Cameron to be tougher on knife crime. It's a foolish and desperate attack which Cameron easily bats away. Andrew Rosindell (Con, has bad things in his basement) says the British people are "crying out" for a referendum on the EU. Are they? Really? Cameron tries to downplay the need for a referendum, a line you'll hear more and more as we approach next week's vote. "I don't support holding a referendum come what may. That's not our policy and I won't be supporting that motion."
12:24 – Really glum look on the Tory front bench. I haven't seen that bench shoulder so much misery since Brown's Cabinet was perched on it.
12:26 – Angus Robertson (SNP, tepid) wants devolution of air passenger duty. I'm not sure I've ever heard him say anything that didn't involve the words devolution. Sam Gyimah (Con, nice suit) asks a career improving question on the government's education policy. Graham Stringer (Lab, pair of slippers) asks somethhing in such an exhausted voice I couldn't make out the words. Cameron tries to get back at Miliband out of nowhere. "His first set of questions were irrelevant and the second lot wrere probably wrong," he says. Very little support from the benches behind him. Referring back to them suggests the exchange is still bothering him. Either way: a mistake.
12:31 – Russell Brown (Lab, deadly teeth) asks about Fox. Cameron says the report has all the details about Werritty's activities. Cameron refuses to be lectured by Labour on lobbying given their track record, he says. The PM even lists payments to Brown for speeches to Credit Suisse. Mark Pritchard (Con, incompetant army captain) makes more eurosceptic noise. Michael Meacher (Lab, use by date approaching) wants a register of lobbyists and who funds them. Cameron says he's already agreed to it. It also needs to include the biggest lobby of all, "the one that owns the party opposite", the trade unions.
12:35 – As Cameron leaves, Labour MPs sit there and smile at him, waving their hands. "Bye," they shout, ironically. "Bye bye." Poor old Ken Clarke has to get up to perform his duty as a buffer zone for Cameron and Fox's reputation. Punishment for the Theresa May Catgate debacle? Perhaps.
12:39 – We'll take a break for an hour until the statement on Fox. See you soon.
13:15 – Sir George Young is up, 15 mins earlier than expected. If you've ever heard him talk you'll know that he oozes reliability and trustworthiness, although the next few minutes might test that. He reminds MPs of the ministerial code in relation to lobbying etc.
13:17 – Now he gives us a timeline – the allegations, interim report etc. On the front bench, Eagle, Khan and Cooper and sitting waiting to attack. Sir George is now up to the bit where Fox resigned. Next to him, Theresa May and Eric Pickles are on the bench. Fox is nowhere to be seen. It's all textbook, with Sir George following the report letter for letter (no financial benefit, gave impression of wrongdoing etc). Sir George hasn't looked up once. He's like a school pupil being forced to read out his essay.
13:22 – He really is just reading out the summary of the Sir Gus O'Donnell report. His assertion that "while Mr Werritty was not a lobbyist" raises ironic laughter from the Labour benches. Cameron was right to say that Labour doesn't have a leg to stand on but the cynicism on display here is staggering. Sir George is laughed at when he says the government is working to restore faith in the political process. Angela Eagle stands to give the reply. "What a condemnation of the way that government is being run in this country."
13:25 – She says it should have been Cameron here giving the statement, especially given he has responsibility for the ministerial code. "This report shows wealthy individuals funded Mr Werritty. He was in effect a privately funded special adviser." She wants an assurance nothing similar is taking place elsewhere in the government. Of course, Miliband asked Cameron that question earlier, but got nothing in return. Fox still isn't in the chamber. Eagle shoots question after question about Werritty to Sir George, who looks very much like he wants to be somewhere else. "Further investigation is essential and urgent," she says.
13:29 – Why was Fox allowed to ignore the risk around his relationship with Werritty, Eagle asks. Why was the situation allowed to continue for so long? Eagle is absolutely owning this – the most impressive performance I've ever seen from her (not hard). "Today the PM's contempt for the matter was revealed," she says. "The government needs to take responsibility for this self-inflicted crisis. People will only conclude this government has something to hide." Sir George replies that no PM has ever given a statement to the House after a resignation.
13:33 – He says the report was not superficial but a "comprehensive piece of work". He insists ministers will answer questions on meetings with Werritty. He says Sir Gus said the issue was specific to Fox. "I say in conclusion, very gently, that her party is not negotiating from a position of strength on this issue. The public… want both sides together in drawing up standards in public life." Well that was much more eloquently phrased than Cameron''s similar argument, but just as cynical.
13:36 – Ben Bradshaw goes very party political. He says he pities Sir George for acting as the PM's shield. He also criticises Cameron for "dithering". Sir George says that what Bradshaw calls "dithering" he calls "fair play". A Tory MP attacks Labour for not installing a statutory register of lobbyists. Standard party-political point scoring. More than a little frustrating and unfortunate. Bercow intervenes to stop Labour MPs shouting at Sir George as he speaks. Cameron is fortunate it's him delivering it. The leader of the House is very widely respected. If it had been someone else, they would be having a much harder time.
13:42 – James Morris (Con,evil Clarke Kent) says the debate "should move on" because we are fighting in Libya. He takes the government line which is that the issue is closed after the report and the recommendations. David Anderson (Lab, old school) says this isn't about allegations. This is the general worry about how someone at a ministerial level could have allowed it and that therefore other ministers might be doing it. "I understand the point", Sir George says. He then refers to Labour resignations over the ministerial code and says the Tories did not suggest it meant all other ministers had broken the code. Chris Bryant (Lab, warrior caste) says the PM is behaving as he did with Coulson – he grips his friends tight. In other words, Cameron protects his old chums. It's a neat attack and not entirely inaccurate, although one could look at it in a more positive manner than the one Bryant has adopted.
13:47 – Finally, Sir George says there will be a full list of ministerial meetings with Werritty. Fiona MacTaggart (Lab, librarian) asks how the reforms would affect a Werritty-style situation if, according to Sir George, he isn't a lobbyist. Sir George says that many people would define him as a lobbyist and that's something that should be discussed in terms of widening the definition. Fox has now arrived in the Chamber, prompting stoney silence and a few schoolboy shouts.
13:50 – Fox statement: He compares his resignation with the moment he was shown a dead family in Libya. He wants to introduce a sense of proportion. It's an attempt at humility, but it doesn't come off right. "I have attempted to be clear. I am very sorry to my colleagues and all those who feel let down by the decisions I have made."
13:52 – He apologises for breaching the code. "It's not only the substance but the perception which matters. You do not turn your back on your friends or family in times of trouble. It is unaccpetable that family should be hounded by elements of the media. It was particularly concerning that Harvey Boulton was treated so unflinchingly." He is still attacking the media. "There was from some sources a vindictiveness, even hatred, that should worry all of us." Remarkable stuff.
13:54 – He says working at the MoD was "a life changing experience". He appears slightly nervous, moving from foot to foot. "It's not easy to watch someone you care about being attacked in a very aggresive and prlonged way" he says of his family. He praises his wife for her support. "I will give this government my full support as they rescue our economy." He also thanks his constituents for giving him the "oppouyrtunity to serve".
13:57 – And with that, he sits down. That was the most profoundly unapologetic apology I have ever heard. We'll now close down the blog and get a news story up for you. Hope you enjoyed the final curtain for Liam Fox… for now. See you next week.