A high-ranking and apparently capable politician with a promising career ahead of him – and possibly even an eye on the top job eventually – resigned as Defence Secretary on 14 October before he could be sacked, and this has led me to consider the nature of mistakes and whether someone deserves sympathy.
Like ice cream, all mistakes are not the same. They come in different flavours.
The circumstances surrounding a particular mistake will determine its seriousness and whether vilification or sympathy should follow.
The following is not an exhaustive list of mistakes:
1. You’re in a very stressful situation and you need to make a decision, there and then. There might be two, three or more options open to you, each one with its pros and cons. You need to use your judgment and work out which is the best, or the least worst, on the information available to you. As long as there is some vaguely objective reasoning for making a particular decision, and no bad faith, then as a general rule the decision-maker ought to be cut a bit of slack if things go tits-up.
This doesn’t apply to Fox because he had plenty of time to think about his actions, over a long period of time.
2. You behave stupidly or absent-mindedly, as a one-off. For example, you’re a government minister and you casually leave some sensitive information lying around or you lose it. A degree of sympathy is appropriate here because it’s an honest mistake; more in the realms of sheer carelessness.
This doesn’t apply to Fox because his behaviour was not a one-off and it was not carelessness.
3. You’re the Secretary of State for Defence and you behave stupidly and improperly, not once or twice but repeatedly over a period of time, despite being warned of the possible problems, and in doing so you break the ministerial code.
This one does apply to Liam Fox.
I’m really struggling to muster much sympathy for him. At numerous points Fox would have had the opportunity to assess and re-assess his behaviour and his relationship with his chum, Werritty. He either repeatedly came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong, in which case his judgment is pretty screwed up and I don’t want his paws anywhere near a red button, or he thought there was something wrong but he could get away with it – again, not really the judgment you expect from a key member of Team UK.
Fox apologised for allowing “the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred”, which is a very weak way of saying, “Bollocks. Now you know that the commercial interests of my halfwit sidekick are more important to me than the defence and security interests of the United Kingdom. I’ll get my coat.”
In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s resignation there was a lot of reluctance on the part of Conservative politicians to condemn his behaviour, the mantra chanted being, “We must wait for the report of [Cabinet Secretary] Sir Gus O’Donnell”.
This is a trend that seems to be an integral part of our political system. A high-profile political issue – be it the death of Dr. David Kelly, or the Iraq War – ultimately leads to a report to which is bestowed an undue amount of prominence and finality. This report – which is not a court judgment or the result of a fully impartial judicial process without political interference – is considered sacrosanct and error-free; the final word on the subject.
Occasionally, of course, there is good reason to hold back criticism or analysis, such as when criminal proceedings are ongoing or imminent or when even the basic facts are unclear and need to be gathered. And neither do I like the extreme version of the alternative: 24-hour rolling news triggering panicked and knee-jerk analysis and reaction. But I do think it is important that politicians should be able to form and express reasonably coherent opinions based on the information available at a given time. They shouldn’t hide behind “reports” which themselves are often just one more output of the very political process which is under scrutiny.
As for Fox, let’s see whether his resignation/sacking is proof of Lyndon Johnson’s theory that it’s better to have people inside your tent pissing out rather than outside your tent pissing in. He came third in the Conservative leadership election back in 2005, behind David Davis and David Cameron, and he has strong support, so he probably could make Cameron’s life uncomfortable if he wanted to play games.
But my guess is that he’ll try and be a model ex-Con and serve out a quiet and uneventful probationary period. And then he’ll turn up in the Cabinet one day with a different role, in the same way Comrade Mandelson kept coming back like a creepy, annoying neighbour, despite his serious fuck-ups like this one and this one.
In terms of political ideology, political parties are often very different. But when it comes to scandal, they’re much of a muchness.