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When Liam Fox gave up his hand

As No.10 reels from Ivan Rogers’ resignation letter in which he accuses Theresa May’s government of ‘muddled thinking’, Liam Fox has found himself in the firing line. Britain’s departing ambassador to the EU has taken aim at the International Trade secretary — declaring that ‘free trade does not just happen’.

Alas should Fox have some tense and difficult negotiations ahead over Brexit, there is reason to believe he may not be the man best placed for a high stakes poker game. Mr S couldn’t help but recall an anecdote courtesy of Theo Bertram — former adviser to Blair and Brown — of working in a corridor across from Fox in 2005 in the lead-up to the general election.

Liam Fox and Alan Milburn were the party chairs and — thanks to the close proximity of their offices — both camps were worried the other would discover their tactics. A cold war emerged, with each party allowing a presser from the other camp to attend their campaign press conferences with ‘observer status’. At these events, the ‘observer’ would give a fake name and email if asked. On one occasion, Labour discovered it was the birthday of one of the Tory ‘observers’ so — in a bid to wind Fox up — gave him a card signed by Alastair Campbell. This did the job and Fox nicknamed the Labour team ‘Operation Blackwatch’ over their antics.

As others discovered the name, Operation Blackwatch soon took on a life of its own with the Labour team credited for things far beyond their ability. Finally, Fox couldn’t stand it and decided to end all engagement with the enemy — meaning no more ‘observers’ at rival events.

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Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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