UK defence minister under pressure over friend

LONDON Thu Oct 13, 2011 2:55am IST

Britain's Defence Secretary Liam Fox arrives at the Paris Gare du Nord station via a Eurostar train to attend a meeting in Paris October 12, 2011.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Britain's Defence Secretary Liam Fox arrives at the Paris Gare du Nord station via a Eurostar train to attend a meeting in Paris October 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

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LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron gave qualified backing on Wednesday to his defence secretary, who has come under pressure for giving regular ministry access to a businessman with no official position and no security clearance.

Cameron told parliament that Liam Fox, a former leadership rival from the right wing of the Conservative party, had done a fine job and rejected opposition demands to fire him, but added that he would await an official report on Fox's conduct.

Evidence of wrongdoing would probably force Cameron to sack the party heavyweight and trigger a complex reshuffle of his coalition cabinet.

That verdict may come in a few days, said a government source who declined to be named.

Fox, 50, has apologised for blurring distinctions between "professional responsibilities and personal loyalties" but said he broke no rules and has nothing to hide.

An interim report found that Fox, who ran against Cameron for the party leadership in 2005, had met defence consultant Werritty 40 times in 18 months, almost half the meetings taking place overseas during official trips or family holidays.

The BBC said Werritty had been funded to act as an unofficial adviser to Fox by wealthy backers who shared the minister's eurosceptic, pro-American and pro-Israel views.

The public broadcaster attributed the report to one of the backers who did not want to be named.

But Fox's spokesman said Werritty had "never been either an official or unofficial adviser" to the minister.

Werritty was best man at Fox's wedding six years ago and has been present at many of his official meetings since Fox took office last year.

Some of the meetings were with senior officials such as U.S. Lieutenant General John Allen, now leading Western forces in Afghanistan, and the British ambassador to Israel.

Labour, the main opposition party, said it wanted to know whether Fox had given Werritty access to commercially useful or other classified information.

"The questions really centre around two themes. One is finances and the other is national security," the source said.

Fox's job is particularly sensitive because Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and played a leading role in the NATO campaign to protect civilians in Libya during the uprising which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.

At the same time he has had to make cuts in the defence budget as part of sweeping reductions in government spending.

On Wednesday he cancelled a news conference that had been planned during a trip to Paris.

(Additional reporting by Keith Weir and Tim Castle; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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