LONDON — Britain's defense minister quit Friday in the face of an influence peddling scandal focused on a close friend who was present on scores of overseas trips despite having no government role.
Defense Secretary Liam Fox became the first Conservative Party lawmaker to quit Britain's Cabinet since the country's coalition government was formed following an inconclusive election in May 2010.
Fox became cornered by questions over the policy influence of his 34-year-old friend Adam Werritty, who served as the best man at Fox's 2005 wedding and with whom he had once shared an apartment. Critics demanded to know who was funding the younger man's tours across the globe to join the minister on 18 overseas visits.
Questions were also raised about whether Werritty was representing groups interested in building ties with Fox to gain defense contracts, or seeking to curry favor with the British defense establishment.
Fox, 50, had initially insisted he planned to continue in his role leading Britain's armed forces, but he was sunk by continued disclosures over Werritty's activities.
"I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred," Fox told Prime Minister David Cameron in his resignation letter. "The consequences of this have become clearer in recent days. I am very sorry for this."
Cameron, who had vowed to wait for the results of a government inquiry expected next week before deciding on Fox's fate, was considering candidates for the high-profile role.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson were all tipped to take on Fox's defense brief, along with party veteran Malcolm Rifkind, a former defense secretary.
Cameron praised Fox's work, saying he had overseen changes at the defense ministry that would ensure the armed forces were "fully equipped to meet the challenges of the modern era."
"On Libya, you played a key role in the campaign to stop people being massacred by the Gadhafi regime and instead win their freedom," Cameron wrote.
Fox also played an important role implementing controversial budget cuts throughout the military.
Though Werritty did not have an official paid role with the defense ministry, he had business cards listing him as an adviser to Fox.
Fox, who was voted in to parliament in 1992, said he had no plans to quit the House of Commons.
However, he expressed regret at leaving his position while military operations are ongoing in Afghanistan and Libya.
"I am proud also to have played a part in helping to liberate the people of Libya, and I regret that I will not see through to its conclusion Britain's role in Afghanistan, where so much progress has been made," he said.
Fox was brought up on a public housing estate in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city and studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, where he became involved in politics.
Though he married his long term girlfriend Dr. Jesme Baird in 2005, he had been the frequent subject of speculation over his sexual orientation.
Critics further pressed Fox on the relationship with Werritty after he disclosed on Monday they had met 40 times since May 2010, including on business trips and family holidays overseas.
Werritty had previously worked for Fox's Atlantic Bridge organization, a now defunct charity that promoted hawkish foreign policy views and sought to become a forum for neo-conservatives in London and Washington.
Fox, who contended for the Conservative Party leadership but came in third in a contest won by Cameron in 2005, was closely allied to Margaret Thatcher, a patron of his charity. The ex-prime minister attended his 50th birthday party last month, though she is now 86 and usually too weak to go out in public.
The departed defense minister was known for favoring closer ties to the United States and had alienated some in his party with his views.
Main opposition Labour Party lawmaker Jim Murphy said Fox's actions in allowing Werritty access to visits, and to arrange a meeting in Dubai with a potential supplier had breached rules governing the conduct of ministers.
Supporter Louise Mensch, a Conservative Party legislator, said Fox's exit was regrettable.
"He was an outstanding Secretary of State for defense and a completely dedicated minister," she wrote on Twitter.
Britain's top civil servant is continuing an inquiry aimed at determining whether Fox breached rules, and whether Werritty profited personally.
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