And tell me, if is it still raining there in England?
And did the government fall last night?
— Little Heroes One Perfect Day, ’82.
You hardly knew where to look in London this week. The government didn’t fall, but a section of it sheared off, and fell into the sea, with Defence Minister Liam Fox resigning on Friday afternoon, after a week’s pummelling from all media over his friendship with Adam Werritty, and the latter’s access to the Ministry of Defence, contractors, foreign dignitaries and, well, Fox himself.
Fox, a member of the right-wing of the Tory party, had been under pressure for nearly a fortnight, when it was first revealed in The Guardian, that Adam Werritty — a 33-year–old piece of Westminster flotsam, and Fox’s former flatmate and best man — had been introducing himself as a special adviser to Fox, had visited the Ministry of Defence building about 20 times without official security clearance and had accompanied Fox on many foreign trips over the past five years, sitting in on more than 40 meetings with diplomats, military contractors and the like.
Fox tried to brazen it out at first, and was staunchly supported by the Tory Right — which left David Cameron with little alternative but to go along for the ride, aware that the Right is extremely pissed off with its alleged exclusion from power.
Two trips in particular stood out. One was a visit to Sri Lanka in early July, in which Werritty appears to have acted as advance man and meeting broker, attending meetings that included the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, and other cabinet members — at a time when the British government was being pushed to limit ties to Sri Lanka, following the massacres that brutally put down the Tamil Tigers in 2010.
The Sri Lanka meeting in turn stirred memories of meetings Werritty had arranged in Dubai earlier, when he had brokered a meeting between Liam Fox, and a US businessman Harvey Boulter. Boulter was hoping Fox would help apply leverage in a dispute between Boulter’s company, Porton (together with an MoD subsidiary), and US mega-corp 3M, over a deal gone wrong. Fox would later say this meeting with Boulter in Dubai was accidental, in a hotel restaurant. Boulter piped up late last week to say that it obviously wasn’t, and had been arranged as early as April. Indeed, it was revealed he had been paying lobbyists £10,000 a month to try and set up a meeting with Fox, via Werritty.
The Dubai meeting made untenable Fox’s defence that he had been merely “foolish” — since there are now allegations that the leverage that Boulter applied — unilaterally otherwise — was a threat that 3M chairman Sir George Buckley would lose his recently gained knighthood. Since court proceedings have now begun on that matter, there was, and is, a chance that Fox will be called to give evidence.
That was bad enough, but it could still be said that Werritty was no more than an unctuous go-between, and that the questions Dr Fox had to answer would mostly come from Mrs Fox. But that did not withstand the third part of the scandal, which was Werritty’s involvement in two “charity” groups established by Fox or Werritty. One was a group called Atlantic Bridge, designed to foster US-British dialogue, blah blah. Claiming to be non-party-political, it as so obviously a right-wing Atlanticist group that the charities commission withdrew its charitable status earlier in the year. Werritty then set up a group named Pargav. Fox hustled for several wealthy backers to fund Pargav, whose stated aim was to help social reconstruction in northern Sri Lanka, after the end of the Tamil insurgency.
But Pargav mostly funded Werritty’s personal expenses, as credit card records show, many of them — the usual sad mix of high-end foreign tailors, apparel stores, and table dance clubs — run up while Werritty was on trips with Fox. On Friday afternoon, it appeared that this link, with ministerial influence in the service of financial gain for Werritty, might have led to the decision for Fox that his position was untenable.
Yet by Sunday morning, it appeared to be something else — with the revelation that Werritty had been in discussions with Mossad, as to how to topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government in Iran. Not only had Werritty been meeting with Iranian opposition groups in Iran, presenting himself to such at-risk people as having government backing, but Mossad was under the impression that he was the UK Secretary of State for Defence’s chief of staff.
The scandal thus has a comic Being There dimension to it, in which a drifting Chance can circle the world, running the Defence Secretary’s diary and Middle East foreign policy based on no more than a vending machine business card. But it’s the deeper interconnections between defence and commerce that it reveals that may be of greatest consequence for the government — the proposed deal by which Boulter’s Cellcrypt company would supply free voice-encryption software for soldiers’ mobile phones in Afghanistan, in exchange for MoD help in his legal troubles with 3M, for example.
Furthermore it makes visible the shadow world of political ginger groups and Astroturfers that the Tory Right is building — Atlantic Bridge, for example, had a partnership with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a key recipient of funds from the Koch brothers, and other uber conservative groups. Right-wingers have a perfect right to organise, of course, but not from the offices of the Ministry of Defence — which is where Adam Werritty was running Atlantic Bridge from.
Should this scandal do any damage to the Cameron government — and the above is still something of an oversimplification of the full story — it may not be due to the complex finagling of Werritty and Fox, but due to the perception of an overwhelming sense of entitlement displayed. Who knows what Werritty’s relationship to Fox is? It may be no more than a friendship — but if so, it’s a friendship with no adult boundaries. As comedian Jeremy Hardy noted “they’re like a pair of teenage boys hanging out together’, daring each other on to greater pranks — “let’s see if I can meet Mossad!”.
It’s not the sense of industrial corruption, associated with say, the Bush administration and Halliburton, that is disconcerting, but its amateurishness, they fey a world of freebies, and half-hearted foundations, and a disconcerting notion that the machinery of government — and the military — is being put in the service of a demeaning mutual psychological dependency.
Such a farce can’t help but reinforce a notion that hangs around the Tory part of the coalition — that it is somehow irrevocably half-arsed, third rate, and not particularly interested in many of the core functions of government. Simultaneous with Fox’s resignation was the revelation that Oliver Letwin, a Cameron “big society” henchman in cabinet, had been spotted doing his paperwork in the park outside his office, and binning used correspondence — including letters with contituents’ personal details.
Letwin, a donnish philosophy pHD, made the defence that he “liked to work outside”. He had been photographed not once but half a dozen times, working thus, in what is not only a breach of the Data Protection Act, but of plain commonsense. Splashed across the front of the Mirror and the Hun it can’t help but increase the feeling that Cameron’s government — despite its push to neoliberalise the economy on half a dozen fronts — is the anti-Thatcher, its leading members not merely out of the control of the PM, but also lacking internal government of the self as well. David Cameron’s speech to the Tory party conference simultaneously encouraged people to pay off their debts and live frugally, while also contemplating the growth that was imminent in the private sector.
The health secretary tells the country it will have to consume five billion calories less a year to avoid crippling health crises — yet resists every attempt to increase food labelling, or experiment with pricing alternatives. There is no seriousness about those things that they claim to be most serious. It is a second-year government that has the distracted air of an end-of-second-term government. The scandals it is suffering are those not of naivete, but of decadence — of a type that usually hit governments when they have given up on collective endeavour, and retreated to private fantasies. All this and a protest camp building on the steps of St Paul’s, protected by the cathedral dean, who has told police not to disperse them — part of the 95 simultaneous “occupations” that occurred on the global “occupy” weekend.
Yet government and people now, and not merely here, appear to be acting in wholly different realms, as though they had no relation to each other at all, scandal and petty calibration at the heights, and increasing sense of refusal below. Little heroes, and lots of zeroes.