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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 16:27 GMT
Liam Fox: Tory health spokesman
Shadow health secretrary Liam Fox
Fox sparked two racism rows
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tory health spokesman Liam Fox was without doubt one of the bright young things of William Hague's first ministerial team.

He is young - just six months younger than his leader - energetic and well turned out.

To be tipped for the top so early is always a huge problem for politicians because they are often then seen to peak too soon or to be over promoting themselves

He also had a bit of the "cool Britannia" about him and was often spotted in the company of celebrities whose names people couldn't quite remember.

This quickly saw him dubbed a bit of a socialite by his colleagues - a dubious tag that can do just as much damage as benefit in politics.

But in his early days in parliament he was a powerful performer and quickly attracted attention.

He is firmly from the Thatcherite, anti-European wing of the party and chimes well with the current opposition.

After acting as PPS to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard, he was swiftly promoted to the whips office and then to junior foreign office minister.

His first job in William Hague's team was to deputise for constitutional affairs spokesman Michael Ancram during the fatiguing devolution referendum campaign.

Formidable task

Unlike his boss, he is fiercely opposed to devolution and "had a good campaign".

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe: hard act to follow
As a result he was promoted to the shadow cabinet in Mr Hague's 1999 reshuffle with the formidable task of following Ann Widdecombe as health spokesman.

He had the obvious advantage of being a family doctor and Mr Hague was eager for Mr Fox to exploit the "in" he hoped that would give him with the health service.

The NHS has never been happy ground for the Tories but, since the last election, Labour had also been suffering negative publicity.

Its pledge to cut waiting lists was off course, there was growing discontent across the service over workload and pay, and there was the inevitable winter crisis.

And Mr Fox made an immediate impression, seizing every opportunity to harry the government.

Peak too soon

Suddenly he was being widely tipped as a future leader, possibly even a successor to Mr Hague after the election.

To be tipped for the top so early is always a huge problem for politicians because they are often then seen to peak too soon or to be over promoting themselves.

That was dangerous enough for Mr Fox, but then came the gaffes.

Spice Girls
Joke at Spice Girls' expense
In comments that sparked a major row last August, and saw him branded as racist, he claimed patients' lives were being put at risk by the poor language skills of doctors from abroad.

"In potential life-and-death situations, having a minimum standard of proficiency in English can be fatal," he was reported as saying.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats accused him of racism, but he remained unrepentant

There was worse to come four months later when he told a joke about the Spice Girls which saw him once again accused of racism, and, this time, also sexism.

The joke was told at a Christmas party which he may well have thought would not get reported. But when it was, he was forced to apologise.

In some ways the most damaging reaction to his gaffe came from a spokeswoman for the Spice Girls who dismissively declared: "One thing is for sure, no one has ever heard of Liam Fox, so no one would bother making offensive jokes about him."

The affairs blew over relatively quickly but he cannot afford to make any more gaffes without attracting a reputation as accident-prone.

And that would do any hopes he harbours for the Tory leadership no good at all.



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