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British defence minister quits in "best man" scandal

British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, leaves after attending a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on October 18, 2010.


After a summer fighting conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding the News of the World telephone tapping scandal, British Prime Minister Cameron has found himself in another political storm – this one over his defence secretary's relationship with a much younger male friend who had passed himself off as a government adviser.

The scandal broke when The Guardian newspaper revealed that defence secretary Liam Fox had met his long-time friend Adam Werritty on 18 foreign trips since Mr. Fox became defence secretary 17 months ago.

Mr. Werritty, a consultant on health and defence issues, had also visited the minister 22 times at his government offices. And although he had no official government role, Mr. Werritty arranged meetings with foreign officials and business people and handed out embossed business cards naming him as Mr. Fox's adviser.

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Mr. Fox spent the week fending off questions and innuendo about his relationship with Mr. Werritty. The minister resigned on Friday, after The Timesnewspaper revealed that companies with strong interests in the countries the two men visited had deposited $235,000 to the bank account of one of Mr. Werritty's companies.

"I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred," the man in charge of Britain's nuclear weapons arsenal said in his resignation letter. "I am very sorry for this."

Political observers said Mr. Fox had stepped aside because he feared worse allegations are still to come. He was replaced by Philip Hammond, 55, a veteran Conservative Party lawmaker who had been transport secretary.

Mr. Fox is the first Conservative cabinet minister to leave Mr. Cameron's coalition government. Strongly Euroskeptic, with a hawkish foreign policy and strong anti-abortion views, Mr. Fox has openly criticized coalition policies and Mr. Cameron's "compassionate conservatism" and his move to the back benches could eventually cause problems for Mr. Cameron from within his own party.

But it was the human drama, along with suggestions that a key minister's lifestyle may have pushed him to compromise British security interests, that have captured Britons' attention.

The Scottish-born Mr. Fox, a favourite of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, is known around London for his sociable nature, colourful personal life and legendary parties. Baroness Thatcher, who had been forced to miss her own 85th birthday celebration, attended his recent 50th birthday party. Earlier this year, he laughed off criticism for going to the pub while Defence Ministry officials were helping co-ordinate the evacuation of British nationals from Libya.

Mr. Fox and Mr. Werritty, 33, met in the early part of the 2000s when Mr. Fox gave a speech at Edinburgh University. The two shared Mr. Fox's government-funded flat in London in 2002 and 2003, and Mr. Werritty was best man when Mr. Fox married his long-time girlfriend, Jesme Baird, in 2005.

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In an interview shortly before the wedding, Mr. Fox said he hoped that "smears" about whether he was "a playboy or a wild man or gay or whatever" would finally be put to rest. But some of the tabloid press raised the question again this week, after Mr. Fox was forced to admit that he had been home with a male friend during a break-in to his apartment a few years ago. The Conservative Party had originally said Mr. Fox had been home alone.

Mr. Werritty seems to have been a constant presence during Mr. Fox's tenure as defence minister. Their trips abroad included ski holidays, some of which Mr. Fox took with his wife. The two men also dined with senior officers of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. Mr. Werritty arranged for Mr. Fox to meet with British defence contractors in Dubai, with a senior Iranian lobbyist with close ties to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, and with the Sri Lankan president. No other British officials were at any of the meetings.

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