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Britain defense minister resigns over links to businessman

Defense Minister Liam Fox acknowledges 'the impression of wrongdoing,' though he denies that he sold access to his office or that businessman Adam Werrity profited from their friendship.

October 15, 2011|By Janet Stobart, Los Angeles Times
  • Philip Hammond, Britain's transport minister, has been named the new defense minister.
Philip Hammond, Britain's transport minister, has been named the… (Oli Scarff / Getty Images )

Reporting from London — The scandal lasted just over a week.

It began with questions about why 33-year-old businessman Adam Werrity had traveled extensively abroad with his longtime friend, British Defense Minister Liam Fox, signs of his unusually close relationship with a Cabinet minister despite holding no official government position.

And it grew as a torrent of allegations emerged about the array of individuals and companies that contributed to Werrity's mosaic of security-related businesses and foundations, which may have supported his first-class travel and lavish lifestyle and suggested he was brokering access to a senior minister for wealthy donors.

On Friday, no longer able to ward off the damaging flak, Fox resigned, acknowledging he had allowed his personal and professional lives to overlap.

"I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred," he wrote in Friday's resignation letter to Prime Minister David Cameron. "The consequences of this have become clearer in recent days. I am very sorry for this."

Fox had resisted calls to quit over his relationship with Werrity, the best man at his wedding, admitting that there was "the impression of wrongdoing" but arguing that any decision on his fate should await the outcome of a government inquiry. He insisted that Werrity had not profited from their friendship, nor sold access to his office. And an internal Defense Ministry inquiry concluded that Werrity's relationship with Fox had not resulted in any security breach.

But revelations and questions about the sources of Werrity's funding continued to emerge. The Times of London has uncovered accounts and documents of Pargav Ltd., a company set up by Werrity to conduct security policy analysis, and which received donations from a lobbyist group for Israel, a company with interests in Sri Lanka and a venture capitalist with interests in Washington.

On Friday, several British media outlets reported a statement from Jon Moulton, a London venture capitalist, declaring that Fox had personally asked him to make a donation to Pargev. Moulton said he made the donation and received no benefit for it.

Fox's political collapse deprives the Conservative Party's right wing of its most prominent standard-bearer. An intellectual descendant of Margaret Thatcher, Fox was leery of close ties to Europe and was an advocate for maintaining strong partnerships with the United States and Israel.

He competed — and lost — against Cameron in the party's 2005 leadership race. But when the Conservatives won power by forming a coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats in 2010, Fox's presence in the Cabinet was seen as an important counterweight.

That internal political calculation was seen as one reason the prime minister stood by his old rival this week, despite the scathing headlines.

Werrity was revealed to have accompanied Fox on 18 official trips abroad, including a visit to Sri Lanka, where Fox has deep political connections and where he had admitted traveling in the past at the Sri Lankan government's expense.

The scandal also resurrected the pair's dubious ethical history: While in the political opposition, Fox had been caught using taxpayer money to pay the mortgage on an apartment, where he had allowed Werrity to live rent-free.

Most observers concurred that Fox had demonstrated, at the least, a staggering lack of judgment, making his resignation inevitable.

"Clearly Fox decided his position was untenable and he did the honorable thing," said Conservative lawmaker Bob Stewart.

Former Cabinet minister and House of Lords member Robert Armstrong, speaking on the BBC, said, "The question marks seem to be over Dr. Fox's judgment in relying so much on Mr. Werrity after he became secretary of state for defense, and how much he knew about Mr. Werrity's background and his financial arrangements.

"There are questions of judgment about Dr. Fox," he said.

Stobart is a news assistant in the Times' London bureau.

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