Politicians, especially when in government, find lawyers and the law make good knocking copy. As my colleague John Hyde reported in a blog from the Conservative Party Conference, MP Ben Gummer was more colloquial than most in telling solicitors to ‘get real’ and stop ‘irresponsible’ opposition to government plans on legal aid. But Gummer’s attitude was fairly typical. Any number of initiatives have aimed to remove lawyers from disputes, based on the idea that representation ‘clouds’ the real issues. The annual naming of top-earning/fat cat legal aid barristers has ‘coincided’ with announcements on changes to legal aid rates and eligibility more than once. Successive home secretaries have openly railed against the judiciary when decisions have not gone their way. So I find it interesting that, faced with revelations that could end their time in office, formerly straight-talking politicians become suddenly quite legalistic in their world-view. The defence secretary Liam Fox is the latest figure to find his inner lawyer, twisting through a series of carefully worded denials about the presence, role, access and influence of his friend Adam Werrity. Werrity’s near-omnipresence on Fox’s trips (18), and the regularity of his access to the secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence (22 visits) appear irregular, especially when set beside the defence-related interest of Werrity’s policy-focused charity. If Fox survives, it is likely to be on ‘narrow’ legal and quasi-legal findings. The argument will run that Werrity’s access was inappropriate, but that no departmental decisions were changed as a result of that access. It may be that the ministerial code, as shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy alleged, was broken, but that, again Fox didn’t change his mind on anything, and that businessmen like Harvey Boulter didn’t pay cash for access. All of which will rather misses the point on several counts. First the Ministerial Code, while noting circumstances under which a minister should offer the prime minister their resignation, is ‘designed to be a helpful guide to ministers’. It is not an extension of the criminal law, and the lack of a criminal prosecution should not be used to prove that the code was not breached. The Code is, in effect, a piece of self-regulation – as concerned with perception as actual wrong-doing. For example, Section 7 concerning ministers’ private interests, which is among those that Murphy cites, says: ‘Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise.’ Second, the commercial advantage that a businessman gains by access may not be down to influencing a minister. As Boulter’s own account of his follow-up actions to his meeting with Fox in Dubai seems to show, perceived proximity to a minister can be an advantage. In this case, Boulter made known his meeting with Fox to manufacturer 3M to gain leverage in a commercial dispute. This happened without Fox’s knowledge, but the informal meeting made Boulter’s actions possible. Then there is the matter of Werrity himself, and his own interests here. From what we know, he runs a policy-related charity, for which he is reported to pay himself £90,000. Not enough is known at this stage to comment directly on his financial affairs or funding for his activities. But it won’t be enough to show that he has not received payment for arranging meetings. The modus operandi of US think tanks, especially on the political right, around politics, lobbying and interest show the way that money can be made available – the route is to fund other related matters. Influential people, who have access to those in power, may be paid overly generous ‘expenses’ and ‘speaker fees’, and reports, research, or ‘white papers’ are commissioned at a superannuated rate. In a similar scenario, journalist Peter Oborne recently alleged former prime minister Tony Blair had been paid £27m to ‘consult’ on the future of the Kuwaiti economy, including the production of a ‘report’ that included some fairly derivative recommendations. (Tony Blair Associates say the figure paid was lower, but will not reveal what it was.) The point is, there doesn’t need to be a specific invoice, recorded conversation or an email for wrong-doing to have occurred, helpful though Fox and Werrity’s detractors would find that. For that is not necessarily how ‘business’ is done in this world – and the failure of an investigation to turn up that sort of smoking gun evidence, would fall short of a full exoneration for Fox.