The resignation of UK aid minister Priti Patel over unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials has sent shockwaves through British Prime Minister Theresa May’s administration, with the government seen as increasingly out of control.
Patel quit on Wednesday, apologizing to May after it emerged that she held a series of meeting with Israeli officials — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — about allocating aid to the Israeli army’s Syrian relief efforts without properly informing Downing Street.
Patel’s sacking makes her the second minister in a week to leave the government, after Michael Fallon quit as defense secretary following allegations of sexual harassment, with several others under fire and May’s government looking increasingly adrift.
Patel’s departure comes as May’s deputy Damian Green is being investigated for allegedly groping a journalist in 2014 — which he denies — while a similar probe is under way into the behavior of junior trade minister Mark Garnier towards his secretary.
“This next month to six weeks is make-or-break time. Not just domestically, not just with the EU withdrawal Bill and the Budget, but with the European Council in December and whether we get ‘sufficient progress’ in Brexit talks,” one minister told The Independent.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, himself accused of jeopardizing the case of a British woman jailed in Iran, after appearing to suggest she was training journalists at the time, told reporters his Conservative colleague Patel had been “a first class secretary of state.”
“It’s been a real pleasure working with her and I’m sure she has a great future ahead of her,” Johnson said.
But opposition party politicians criticized Patel and the prime minister for failing to rein in her ministers.
Kate Osamor, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, said May “must get control of her chaotic cabinet and decaying government.”
Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said Patel had “rightly been forced to step down for her cover up.”
“This was an appalling error of judgement and is nothing short of a major failure by the British government,” Swinson said.
Labour Party lawmaker Jonathan Ashworth said Patel’s position was untenable even if she had been unaware she was breaking rules when she met Netanyahu and the others.
“If she didn’t know, she’s incompetent. If she did, she’s lying,” he told Sky News. “Either way she’s got to go.”
May will reportedly name a replacement for Patel in the coming days, and will be under pressure to install a similarly vociferous Brexit backer, according to analysts. She is not expected to launch a major cabinet reshuffle, as some have called for.
Associates of Patel told the Telegraph she feels like she is being made a “scapegoat” by the government and “could do some pretty hard damage to Downing Street,” by going after colleagues who opposed the Brexit.
“She’ll go off like a double-barreled shotgun, she is livid. She’ll make her feelings clear about [Remain campaigners] Philip Hammond, Anna Soubry, all of them,” one said.
Already on Wednesday, the Jewish Chronicle reported that Patel had informed 10 Downing Street of the meetings and had been advised to keep a sit-down with Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York off of a list of 12 meetings with Israeli officials she disclosed, to save face for the Foreign Office.
Downing Street denied the claims as “categorically untrue.”
Patel had apologized on Monday for holding 12 separate meetings during a family holiday to Israel in August, without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street in advance.
After a public reprimand from the prime minister, Patel left the UK on Tuesday for a three-day trip to Uganda, but then returned early, on Wednesday, at May’s request after the existence of more meetings were reported, including with Rotem and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
Patel apologized to May in a letter and offered her resignation.
May accepted Patel’s resignation, replying in a letter that “the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally.”
In a further development on Wednesday, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Patel visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the government.
Even though Israel extended Israeli law to the Golan Heights in 1981, Britain views the Golan as occupied territory and a minister told MPs on Tuesday that funding the Israeli Defense Forces there was “not appropriate.”
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson wrote a letter to May asking what the government knew about Patel‘s meetings during her private holiday in Israel from August 13 to 25. “I have been informed that while she was in Israel, Ms Patel met officials from the British consulate general Jerusalem, but that the fact of this meeting has not been made public,” Watson wrote. “If this were the case, then it would surely be impossible to sustain the claim that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not aware of Ms Patel‘s presence in Israel. The existence of such a meeting or meetings would call into question the official account of Ms Patel‘s behaviour, and the purpose of her visit.”
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