Conservative Diary

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Liam Fox, leader of the right?

by Paul Goodman

"Once is happenstance.  Twice is coincidence.  The third time is enemy action."  This morning, Liam Fox is on the second part of Goldfinger's bon mot, but not everyone will be convinced that the leak of another letter from the Defence Secetary to Downing Street is mere chance.  But just as there are three parts to the saying, there are three possible explanations.  The first is that there's a conspiracy against the Defence Secretary, perhaps operating out of Downing Street.  The second is that the appearance of Fox's first letter in the Daily Telegraph last year has no connection with the emergence his second today in the The Times.  The third is that both sources were "close to the Defence Secretary".

I'm not suggesting that the last explanation is the best by anticipating how others will explore it.  Some will say that the appearance of this second letter means that Dr Fox believes he's unsackable in the event of any Cabinet reshuffle, such is his position on the right of the party and David Cameron's unwillingness to antagonise it.  Others are bound to go further, and wonder how happy the Defence Secretary is with the Government in the first place: he chose to describe Cameron in a recent speech as a "good coalition Prime Minister, saying that he didn't have such skills - thus reminding his audience and others that he's a blue-in-tooth-and-claw Conservative first and foremost.

"A source close to Dr Fox" told the Times - on the record - that "the Defence Secretary fully supports the principle of a 0.7% target on international aid.”  And it can be argued that the paper's take on Fox's letter goes further than its words.  The Defence Secretary doesn't say that the target should be scrapped: rather, he writes about whether it should be set in law, how quickly it should be hit, and what it should consist of.  But the last point yokes Fox's concerns to the instincts of Conservative activists.  The Defence Secretary indicates that some spending from the defence budget should be shifted into the aid one, which won't make him any less popular with Party members than he is already.

The Conservative right has no leader.  It has prominent figures on both the front and back benches - Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood.  Whatever its source, an effect of the leak will be to remind Tory MPs and activists of Dr Fox's credentials.  No wonder Downing Street, according to the Times, that "a Downing Street source said that they 'watch Dr Fox closely."  So would a third leak mean "enemy action"?  I doubt it.  The Prime Minister hates sackings, reshuffles, moves, unnecessary drama.  One of his mottos seems to be: better Cabinet Ministers inside the tent leaking out than outside the tent leaking in.  By the way, whatever happened to that leak enquiry into the first letter?


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