Liam Fox's aides turned on Adam Werritty last night, describing him as a "Walter Mitty figure" who took advantage of the minister's friendship.
In a clear attempt to distance the Defence Secretary from Mr Werritty to save his political career, "friends" of Mr Fox said it was "clear that Mr Werritty was masquerading as something he was not". Mr Fox himself said last night that he was the victim of a "witch-hunt".
But, at the same time, military commanders and senior civil servants in his department warned that it was becoming untenable for Mr Fox to continue in his job. They also expressed grave concern that the Defence Secretary appeared to have used Mr Werritty as an adviser in formulating national policy.
One of the highest ranking officers in the armed forces said: "This cannot go on for much longer. We know there are other things which will come out. He is not dealing properly with his in-tray with all that's going on and we have pressing issues which need to be addressed."
The aggressive briefings by Mr Fox's advisers are particularly damaging as they echo the briefings given by Downing Street under Tony Blair about David Kelly after he committed suicide. Both made the same reference to "Walter Mitty" – a fictional character who lived in a fantasy world.
They briefed journalists: "It is clear Werritty was masquerading as something he was not. He was hanging around and popping up in places trying to be part of a group. This guy is clearly a Walter Mitty figure."
And a senior Whitehall official responded: "He is prepared to take advice from a Walter Mitty figure rather than us. There are 40,000 jobs going in defence and we have this circus going on."
The Cabinet Secretary's report on the pair's relationship, due "within days", is to be published in some form, making it more difficult to save Mr Fox should it imply that he has breached the ministerial code.