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Not just a wily Fox, but a watchful hawk with time on his side

3 June 2011

Liam Fox is fond of reminding us that he didn’t come into politics to cut the
armed forces. A wistful look falls across his face when he says it – an indication of frustration as much as sincerity, a sense deepened by his letter of concern about the government spending so much more on
international development.

Opponents of Fox might characterise this as hypocrisy: he would reduce the size of the state without touching the armed forces, they say. His enemies in the Conservative party say that it’s
typical of this “clever fool’s” intellectual indiscipline. Fox the military and fiscal hawk wants to “have it both ways”.

The Economist has an essential profile of the defence secretary, which argues that Fox’s position is a choice not a
contradiction. Fox is a self-anointed standard bearer of the right and his politics are anything but incoherent. Cast you mind back several weeks to that thoughtful speech Fox gave on debt as a
national security concern. Might the robustly Conservative Fox cut further and faster to reduce the
burden of debt? One suspects that he almost certainly would.

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His relationship with the Cameroons has always been uneasy. Aside from their politics, there is an obvious presentational tension between the comprehensively educated Scot and the array of 
English advantage at the top. Fox embodies the aspiring voter and I doubt he’s missed that coincidence.

The Economist says that Fox still has leadership ambitions. Certainly, he works the tea rooms and bars with affable cunning. He charms select committees, where, naturally, he tells the likes of
Bernard Jenkin and James Arbuthnot that he’s doing his best to protect the forces – and the forces are grateful, apparently. He often uses more direct means to communicate with
backbenchers and the wider party. In the past, he has been accompanied by backbenchers to Washington, where they met with prominent Republicans. And, as James reported in the Mail on Sunday, Fox’s appointment of Lord Ashcroft to decide the fate of Britain’s
military bases in Cyprus has unnerved Downing Street, who are wary of this axis.

Perhaps this explains why Fox is thought to be unsackable. Even beyond the context of coalition, it would be expedient to trap him in Cabinet rather than free him onto the backbenches. Besides,
Fox’s opponent, Jim Murphy, has the easy task of attacking a right-winger overseeing substantial defence cuts at a time of conflict: it is not the position from which to launch an
anti-modernising counter-revolution. But, as the dutiful sounding defence secretary says, he wouldn’t have it this way, and you believe that he wants to set that right. At 49, Fox has that
most precious of all political commodities: time.

UPDATE: I’m told that the appointment of Lord Ashcroft had the full approval of the Prime Minister.

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Show comments
  • Nuremberg Excuse is it?

    “I voss only following orders”

    The Tories have shafted the Armed Forces, yet again.

  • Bloody Bill Brock

    Why do people like you ask such stupid questions? Fox knows more than most the need for huge spending cuts across the board. Like my own view, he would make defence cuts the smallest of the lot, or, no defence cuts. However, in a cabinet, ministers have to share responsibility (unless they are Labour)and if you are in a coalition with the LDs, because you did not win outright, you are double fcuked.

  • RCE

    How does presiding over cuts you don’t agree with make you a good bloke?

  • TheE17Tory

    Met Fox in the run up to the leadership contest in 2005, very impressive character. Would of voted for him if he’d made the final 2.

  • Kennybhoy

    Wot Peter from Maidstone says.

    As I wrote on a recent thread.

    “There is a rational case for exempting defence from any cuts on the basis that they have already been made.

    From the end of the Cold War until the financial crash successive government’s have effectively cut our defence budget while maintaining or massively increasing other government spending. The present coalition government has to some degree continued this policy.

    My parents, God keep them, taught me that even in the worst financial circumstance the last thing that you should cut is your family’s insurance cover. Our military capability,diminished as it is, is our national insurance policy. At both a domestic and national level the potential consequences of being under or even completely uninsured in such a dangerous and unstable world are for any rational soul, too terrible to contemplate.”

  • strapworld

    It does appear that there IS a conservative politician in the cabinet! When will the conservative party wake up and kick Cameron into touch?

  • Mirtha Tidville

    @Peter from Maidstone

    An excellent precis of this situation and one which millions of people in this country will agree with. Though sadly not Cameron and the oddball cabal of Liberals that he leads.

    Dr Fox is certainly one to keep your eye on folks..

  • TrevorsDen

    The problem with our armed forces is the wasteful way we spend our money.

    Despite all the money we currently spend our armed forces have been ineffective in Basra and Afghanistan.

    What use will or would 2 giant aircraft carriers with expensive exotic VTOL jets be in Afghanistan?

    We need frigates for the navy, more submarines. Inexpensive fighter-bombers and drones for the airforce and special forces for the army.
    Despite billions we cannot sustain a suitable force in Afghanistan.

    Just what are our armed forces for? Does what we spend justify what we get or need.

    Possibly more satellites and command and control to go with them.

  • decafT

    a link to the Economist would have sufficed.

  • CmdKeen

    The British Armed forces have been cut for the duration of the last Labour government – by inadequate funding increases, especially given the costs of the military endeavours they embarked upon.

    Look a graph of real terms military spending v other departments for the past 20 years and you will see why cutting the defence budget is unfair compared to cutting other budgets. As a % of GDP the defence budget has contracted massively, during a period of state spending as a % of GDP increasing massively.

  • Perry

    that thoughtful speech Fox gave on debt as a national security concern

    How refreshing, – a man in Government who thinks, – and deeply too.

    His relationship with the Cameroons has always been uneasy

    Full marks to him there.

    The Economist says that Fox still has leadership ambitions


  • Peter From Maidstone

    Why is it inconsistent to want a smaller state and at the same time wish to preserve the spending on the Armed Forces? Last time I looked we were involved in several wars, still need to protect British dependencies that so-called allies have their eye on, and don’t know what sort of military challenges we will face next yearlet alone next decade.

    If you ask most conservatives they would be entirely in favour of cutting spending genrally but supporting the Armed Forces budget in particular (on the proviso that spending was efficient and reasonable). Cut most Aid spending and pass it to the Armed Forces. I don’t think most people would complain about that.

  • Frank P

    Divide and conquer Mr Blackburn?

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