LONDON, (AFP) – British Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned Friday amid a spiralling scandal over his links to the best man at his wedding, becoming the first Conservative minister to quit the coalition government.
Fox, 50, who played a key role in Britain’s military campaigns in Libya and Afghanistan, stepped down after it emerged that his friend Adam Werritty posed as a government adviser and took a string of foreign jaunts with the minister.
Philip Hammond, the Conservative former transport minister, was named as Fox’s replacement by Prime Minister David Cameron, the defence ministry said. Justine Greening, a junior finance minister, will replace Hammond.
“I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred. The consequences of this have become clearer in recent days,” Fox wrote to Cameron in his resignation letter.
“I am very sorry for this.”
Cameron said Fox had helped prevent Libyans being “massacred” by Moamer Kadhafi’s forces and had done a “superb job” since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power after elections in May 2010.
With rumours swirling in the press about the nature of Fox’s relationship with his 34-year-old former flatmate, Fox apologised to parliament earlier this week and admitted that Werritty had accompanied him on 18 foreign trips since he became minister.
Werritty also visited Fox 22 times at the defence ministry in London during the same period and printed business cards describing himself as Fox’s adviser despite having no official government role.
But the killer blow came on Friday with reports that financial backers linked to Israel and a private security firm had funded Werritty’s first class travel and hotel stays during his time with the minister.
Werritty was interviewed for a second time on Friday by civil servants as part of an inquiry ordered by Cameron last week into whether Fox broke the ministerial code of conduct, a government source told AFP.
The results of the inquiry are expected next week, the source added.
Fox said in his letter to Cameron that he had “repeatedly said that the national interest must always come before personal interest. I now have to hold myself to my own standard”.
Cameron thanked Fox — Britain’s sixth defence minister in ten years — for overseeing “fundamental changes” at the bloated Ministry of Defence and in modernising the armed forces as part of wider government cost-cutting.
“I understand your reasons for deciding to resign as defence secretary, although I am very sorry to see you go,” the premier wrote to him.
“On Libya, you played a key role in the campaign to stop people being massacred by the Kadhafi regime and instead win their freedom.”
But the main opposition Labour party said there were still questions to be answered about Fox’s conduct.
“Governments have got to have rules and ministers have got to have standards and he fell foul of the standards we expect,” Labour defence spokesman Kevan Jones said.
Fox, who rose from humble beginnings on a Scottish social housing estate to become a medical doctor before joining politics, was one of the Conservative party’s last heirs of hardline former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
He lost to Cameron in the 2005 Conservative leadership election, but remained a strong voice for the party’s eurosceptic, American-leaning right — one that Cameron had apparently been loath to kick out too soon.
Fox married his wife, Jesme Baird the same year and Werritty was best man. Pictures of the pair in matching outfits with big grins have been reprinted throughout the week in the British press.
Fox is the first Conservative minister to resign from the government and the second cabinet minister, following Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws.
Laws quit on May 29, 2010 over claims that he fiddled his expenses.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper first raised questions about Fox’s ties to Werritty in August and the scandal erupted in full earlier this week with fresh revelations about their travels together.
Then on Friday the Times newspaper reported that donors funnelled £147,000 ($231,000, 167,000 euros) into a not-for-profit company set up by Werritty, called Pargav, to pay for his first class flights and upscale hotels.
Later Friday a venture capitalist, Jon Moulton, said that Fox had personally approached him to donate to Pargav.