Pressure eases on Britain's under-fire defence minister

10th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron backed his under-fire defence minister on Monday, insisting he would not rush to judgment on claims Liam Fox let a close friend work as his unofficial advisor.

Fox is under intense pressure following allegations that his former flatmate Adam Werritty posed as his advisor, brokered meetings with businessmen and accompanied him on ministerial trips including to Sri Lanka and Dubai.

The opposition Labour party has questioned whether Fox, 50, put national security at risk with his relationship with the 34-year-old Werritty, who has also made numerous visits to the defence ministry in the past year.

Fox rejects this accusation, although he apologised Sunday for giving "the impression of wrongdoing", and admitted he allowed "distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties".

After a visit to Libya at the weekend which was overshadowed by the row, Fox was due to answer questions on the scandal in the House of Commons later on Monday, and was also set to make a statement to lawmakers.

But just hours before, the pressure eased when Cameron's office made clear he would not be rushing to judgment on his defence secretary's behaviour, and the prime minister himself issued a strong declaration of support.

"He does an excellent job, he leads that department well, he has my support. I know he wants to answer these questions and clear the air and he has my support as he does that," Cameron told Sky News.

Fox's behaviour is being investigated by the top civil servant in his ministry who is due to report back on October 21.

In a move widely viewed as a sign that his support for his minister was wavering, Cameron asked on Saturday for an interim report on the findings to be given to him by Monday.

But the prime minister's official spokesman has now made clear that the report is only preliminary, suggesting Cameron will hold off any verdict.

"Before we draw any conclusions we want to establish the facts, and not just some of the facts but the full picture," he said.

Cameron told Sky News: "It's important that as the leader of the team you give your team members the time to explain themselves."

He praised Fox's apology on Sunday, in which the minister admitted it had been wrong to attend a private meeting brokered by Werritty in Dubai in June with businessmen hoping to sell technology to the British ministry.

Fox said he had apologised to the prime minister for the meeting, which was not attended by any ministry officials, and put in place new procedures "to ensure that this does not happen again".

However, Fox insisted that "at no stage" did he provide classified information or briefings to Werritty -- who was best man at his wedding six years ago -- or help his commercial work.

Fresh allegations were made in Monday's newspapers, including a report that Fox had used public funds to pay Werritty as a parliamentary researcher, and that Werritty acted as Fox's personal envoy to Sri Lanka.

Footage also emerged on Sunday of Werritty apparently attending a meeting between Fox and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse in London in 2010.

Cameron said: "Of course there are a whole series of questions that have come out of the media, that Liam is answering. He answered them last night, he gave a good account of himself."

Fox is a member of Cameron's Conservative party, although he has more traditional views than the prime minister and they have clashed in the past.

He nevertheless has a key role in the coalition government in pushing through defence spending cuts, as part of its deficit reduction programme.

© 2011 AFP

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