British PM Cameron backs embattled defense minister but seeks answers
By Anthony Faiola,
LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday backed embattled Defense Minister Liam Fox but called for more thorough answers to allegations that Fox allowed a close friend with ties to the defense industry undue access to government meetings.
Fox, a major advocate for Britain maintaining a strong role in global affairs side by side with the United States, is being investigated for possible breaches of national security or violations of ministerial rules for allowing his onetime best man and roommate, Adam Werritty, to sit in on high-level talks despite holding no official post in the British government.
Although Fox as recently as last week called the allegations “baseless,” since Sunday he has sought to dial back his denials, instead admitting to lapses of judgment while insisting that no actual wrongdoing took place.
“I’m sure that we can answer these questions and come through all of this,” Cameron said Monday, insisting that he “absolutely” still had full confidence in Fox.
Yet Fox’s fate remained very much in question. The roiling scandal hits the Conservative-led British government when it is still struggling to regain its footing in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal this year, when Cameron came under fire for hiring as his communications director a former News of the World tabloid editor now charged with criminal wrongdoing.
It is also deflecting Fox’s attention from Britain’s defense strategy at a critical time, with London wrestling with key decisions including how and when to wind down the war in Afghanistan, where Britain maintains the largest number of foreign troops after the United States.
Analysts suggested that Fox might emerge from the scandal with his job intact, particularly if a report to be submitted to the prime minister’s office Oct. 21 finds that his actions did not violate national security.
Cameron, who is considered a relative moderate within his Conservative Party, also might find it difficult to challenge his right wing by dismissing Fox, who remains popular among Britain’s hawks.
But at a time when the question of outside advisers is dogging the government, Fox’s actions have put Cameron in a difficult position, with the endgame still uncertain.
On Monday, Fox, speaking in Parliament, apologized for granting Werritty extraordinary access to the government. But he said that Werritty’s access would be stopped and that he had never been shown classified information.
“I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend,” Fox said.
Werritty, for instance, sat in on a December meeting with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Werritty also reportedly facilitated a meeting in Dubai between Fox and defense industry investors without other British government officials being present, in potential violation of British ministerial codes.
The scandal appeared likely to continue raising questions, however, particularly given that Werritty, who is not a British government employee, handed out business cards that bore the House of Commons logo and described him as Fox’s adviser. Werritty also helped run a Conservative Party charity set up by Fox with reported links to business lobbyists in the United States.