UK defence secretary in row over role of 'adviser'

Questions asked over close friend Adam Werritty's role, including a meeting in Dubai in June between UK defence secretary Liam Fox and a company hoping to sell phone call encryption technology to the British military.

LONDON // The fate of Britain's defence secretary, Liam Fox, may be decided this week after claims that his relationship with a close friend and unofficial adviser may have breached national security.

Adam Werritty's 14 visits to the defence ministry in the past 16 months, without security clearance and despite not being on its payroll, are being questioned as well as whether he accompanied Mr Fox on official overseas trips, and set up business meetings, including one in Dubai in June, where ministry officials were not present.

On Saturday newspapers reported that Mr Werritty had brokered a meeting in Dubai in June between Mr Fox and a company hoping to sell phone call encryption technology to the British military.

Yesterday Mr Fox apologised for a row over his friend's reported influence over government policy, but promised to fight his case in parliament today.

Fox accepted it was "a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend", in a statement issued Sunday.

The role of defence secretary is particularly sensitive in Britain because of the involvement of about 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan and its role in helping NATO protect civilians in Libya after the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Mr Fox returned to Britain on Sunday from Libya where his first visit to the country was overshadowed by the saga.

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, has demanded the initial findings of an inquiry arrive on his desk today after media furore surrounding his minister's ties with Mr Werritty, a former flatmate and best man at his wedding, refused to go away.

Although Mr Cameron has said he has "full confidence" in Mr Fox, the 48-hour deadline was shorter than the two-week deadline Mr Fox gave a top military civil servant to carry it out.

The opposition is calling for a wider inquiry, and will push for Mr Fox to make an emergency statement to parliament today, where he is already due to answer defence questions.

Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, told BBC television yesterday: "It's not just the questions of national security and access to highly sensitive information. It's also the question of the probity and procurement.

"But there's now a further question about Dr Fox's integrity and the question of whether he actually answered truthfully and fully all the questions that have been put."

Although Mr Werritty is not part of Mr Fox's team of officials, he is reported to have handed out embossed cards describing himself as "adviser" to the minister.

In Misrata, Mr Fox told Reuters, when asked if the coverage was overshadowing his role as defence secretary: "Well, of course, that's what those who raised the stories intended and they're allowed to do that in a democratic society." He described the claims as "utterly baseless".

Mr Fox, who stood against Mr Cameron for party leadership in 2005, came into conflict with him again last year as leaks emerged when his department successfully fought deep budget cuts.

A retired senior military official, who declined to be named said: "If there is any real substance to this story, that may undermine his position, but so far, I'm not convinced there is. Every minister's got mates who he deals with, who they use as their confidantes."

Defence analyst Paul Beaver said, referring to Mr Fox's role as defence secretary during the current events in Libya, said: "We will look back at his tenure as defence secretary in a decade's time and will remember what was a very successful campaign.

"He is a fighter, I think he firmly believes he has done nothing of a resignation issue."

Reuters, with AFP

Published: October 10, 2011 04:00 AM

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