UK PM steps into defence minister row

LONDON/MISRATA Sun Oct 9, 2011 8:52am IST

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party's annual Conference in Manchester northern England October 5, 2011. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party's annual Conference in Manchester northern England October 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

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LONDON/MISRATA (Reuters) - Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron stepped into a row surrounding his defence secretary's working relationship with a former flatmate on Saturday by demanding initial findings of an inquiry be delivered within 48 hours.

The prime minister had earlier in the day given his backing to his embattled minister, and suggested the internal inquiry should be given time to investigate claims by the opposition that national security or ministerial code of conduct may have been breached.

But media reports into Liam Fox's links with his best man at his wedding and self-styled adviser Adam Werritty did not show any signs of abating during the weekend and continued to dominate the front pages in early editions of Sunday's papers.

A spokesman for the prime minister's office said Cameron had asked the cabinet secretary to report to him on Monday with the initial finds of the inquiry.

The media's coverage overshadowed Fox's first visit to Libya, where he announced an additional 500,000 pounds ($781,000) of funds to help the new interim government fight arms proliferation.

Opposition defence spokesman Jim Murphy said he would ask for an emergency parliamentary statement from Fox on Monday.

Fox is on the right of Cameron's Conservatives and is seen as a potential leadership challenger.

On Friday, he had tried to take charge of the media situation by asking a top defence civil servant to carry out an inquiry into the "baseless" accusations, which was due to have taken two weeks.

In Misrata, the minister told Reuters, when asked if the coverage was overshadowing his role as defence secretary: "Well of course, that's what those who raised the stories intended and they're allowed to do that in a democratic society.

"But I think all the events can be explained. I think many of the claims are utterly baseless. I look forward to a resolution of this as quickly as possible so I can get on with the difficult job I have."

He told the BBC he would stand by the inquiry's decision.

The media has centred around Werritty's 14 visits to the Ministry of Defence in the past 16 months, despite him not being on its payroll.

The coverage has also questioned whether Werritty accompanied Fox on any official overseas trips.

Although Werritty is not part of Fox's team of officials, he is reported to have handed out embossed cards describing himself as "adviser" to the minister.

On Saturday, The Independent, The Financial Times and other newspapers kept up the pressure when they reported Werritty had arranged and attended a meeting in Dubai in June between Fox and a company seeking to transfer communications technology. No Ministry of Defence officials were present.

There were no comments from Werritty in the British media and it was not immediately possible to reach him.

Jim Murphy, Labour's defence spokesman, told BBC radio: "This has become murkier and murkier, and the main question that Liam Fox has to resolve is did his former flatmate and best man at his wedding ever have access to MoD meetings, MoD documents, conversations about Libya, Afghanistan, our forces or national security." ($1 = 0.640 British Pounds)

(Writing by Avril Ormsby in London. Additional reporting by Barry Malone; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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