Oliver Wright: No 10's strategy? To let the Fox tire itself out before going in for kill

If Fox were to return to the back benches, he would be free to channel unrest about the Coalition
  • @oliver_wright

As endorsements go it was hardly ringing. Asked yesterday morning whether David Cameron still had confidence in his Secretary of State for Defence the answer came back: "The Prime Minister is remaining supportive of Liam Fox while the facts are established."

Later in the day the backing was increased and Downing Street said the two men had spoken and "David really doesn't want to lose Liam". But the fact remains the two men have never much liked each other and privately Mr Cameron would not be unhappy to see the departure of Mr Fox.

But there's a catch: Downing Street can only force him out if he returns to the back benches under such a cloud that he can't cause trouble for the Coalition in the future.

Mr Fox is the highest profile rightwinger in the Government. As a minister he is bound by collective responsibility, but if he were to leave office he would be free to speak his mind and emerge as the de facto leader of the anti-Coalition movement inside the Tory parliamentary party. That would spell trouble down the line for the Government. So what is likely to happen next?

One of the problems is the very narrow terms of reference for the current inquiry which were agreed between Mr Fox and the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Ursula Brennan.

It only covers the meetings between Mr Fox and Adam Werritty inside the MoD itself and not their trips to Sri Lanka and Dubai which have been the subject of the substantive revelations. It also does not appear to address what advice Mr Werritty was providing Mr Fox or whether at any stage Mr Werritty profited from that relationship.

It is quite possible therefore that the initial results today could clear Mr Fox on one level – but are inconclusive on other aspects of the affair. In that case it is likely that Downing Street will play for time – still not fully endorsing the Defence Secretary and waiting to see what else emerges in newspapers over the coming days.

It's a slightly clichéd analogy, but it is in Mr Cameron's interest to let the Fox tire itself out before going in for the kill.