UK defense chief hit by influence-peddling scandal

October 12, 2011 - 1:20 PM
France Britain Defense Secretary

British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, leaves the Gare du Nord railway station prior to a meeting with his French counterpart, Gerard Longuet, in Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. A close friend of Britain's defence minister was questioned by government officials Tuesday in an investigation into the extent of the politician's ties to the former industry consultant. Defence Secretary Liam Fox has acknowledged he acted inappropriately in allowing former roommate and best man Adam Werritty, who previously ran a now-defunct defense consultancy called Security Futures, to join him on numerous overseas trips and to arrange a meeting in Dubai with a potential supplier. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

LONDON (AP) — Adam Werritty's business card opened doors.

He held no position in the British defense department — in fact, none in the government at all. But his card listed him as an adviser to Defense Secretary Liam Fox, and it carried the official crest of Britain's House of Commons.

No wonder Werritty, a private citizen, was able to set up business meetings on defense matters in places like Dubai, where his constant access to Fox gave him instant cachet.

The arrangement served him well until last week, when opposition politicians started asking pointed questions about possible influence-peddling. The probe has now widened into a more general attack on Fox, including a none-too-subtle media onslaught suggesting he has lied to cover up his sexual orientation.

Fox apologized this week for letting "the distinction to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and personal loyalties to a friend." But the minister, who has long dismissed rumors that he is gay, said he is "appalled at being portrayed as having something to hide."

The scandal, now being investigated by both the Ministry of Defense and the Cabinet Secretary, comes as a further blow to Prime Minister David Cameron's government, which is under pressure over a tabloid phone-hacking scandal, the troubled economy and its handling of riots in London over the summer.

The defense secretary's Conservative Party supporters fought back Wednesday against what they called an ugly smear campaign against the 50-year-old Fox, who married in 2005, with his former flatmate Werritty serving as best man.

"It's now moved into a disgraceful innuendo campaign," said Louise Mensch, a prominent Conservative lawmaker and author. Mensch said the scandal had raised "substantive" issues about Fox, but insisted his apology should be enough.

"He made misjudgments, but it's not a resigning matter," she said. "You'll notice that even the Labour Party hasn't said he should step down."

Others think Fox is too badly damaged to survive — not because of any issues involving his sexuality, but due to legitimate questions about whether he abused his position as defense chief to help a friend.

"My gut feeling is he can't really operate in such a major position when there is so much suspicion," said Charles Heyman, editor of the publication Armed Forces of the UK.

Heyman said that while the British public no longer discriminates against gay politicians, Fox will emerge tarnished if there's a perception he has not been honest about his personal life, and in particular about suggestions in news media ranging from the Sun tabloid to the venerable BBC that he might be homosexual.

"If he had come out a few years ago and said, 'Yes, I'm gay,' no one would care," Heyman said. "But what's driving it is a sense that he's got a marriage of convenience. There is a suspicion he's trying to cover it up."

One key issue being investigated is whether Werritty used his close ties to Fox — and his easy access to defense headquarters — for financial gain. Fox, who admits meeting Werritty some 40 times since taking office last year, many of those during foreign trips, has denied that his friend benefited financially from the relationship.

Fox, who competed for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005, is regarded as the dominant force in the party's traditionalist wing and seen as the longtime torchbearer for his political heroine: former British leader Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, now 85, is rarely seen in public, but was photographed attending Fox's 50th birthday party in September.

She was also a patron of Fox's now-defunct charity, The Atlantic Bridge, an organization established to promote ties between Britain and the U.S., and strongly supportive of neo-conservative views. Werritty had previously worked for the organization.

Some analysts question whether Fox himself has fueled the innuendo over his private life, in an attempt to deflect attention from serious questions about Werritty's defense role.

Fox has previously been adept at handling rumors over his sexuality and gave frank replies to questioning in 2005, as he married his wife Jesme and also competed for his party's leadership.

"I know that some people use smears and I have heard them for years," he told London's Evening Standard newspaper at the time. "They'd say, 'Why are you not married? You must be a playboy or a wild man or gay,' or whatever. Well, I'm getting married in December and I'm perfectly happy with my private life and it remains my private life."

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Associated Press writer David Stringer contributed to this report.