LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday promoted a junior minister to replace ousted aid secretary Priti Patel, avoiding a major personnel shuffle and maintaining the delicate Brexit balance in her cabinet.
The Conservative leader named Penny Mordaunt, a minister in the welfare department and a strong supporter of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, as her new international development secretary.
On Wednesday evening, Patel became the second minister to quit within a week, after a row over unauthorized meetings she had during a holiday to Israel in August, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
May had summoned Patel back from a trip to Africa to explain her talks with Israeli politicians, in which she reportedly raised the possibility of Britain diverting aid to the Israeli army for medical help for Syrian refugees.
“As you know from our discussion I accept that in meeting with organizations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel my actions fell below the high standards that are expected,” she wrote. “While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”
Patel wrote in her letter that there had been a “number of reports about my actions and I am sorry that these have served as a distraction.”
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.”
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 returned on Wednesday at May’s request.
In Israel, opposition leader Isaac Herzog called Patel’s resignation a “great loss” for both Israel and Britain.
“She is a wonderful political leader who served the people with passion and honor,” Herzog told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of an event held by the British, Israel and Commonwealth Association marking the Balfour Declaration centenary. “I had the great pleasure of meeting her on many occasions and saw her dedication. It is a great loss for Israel and also for the people of the UK.”
British Ambassador to Israel David Quarry, at the same event, declined to comment on the resignation.
Sir Eric Pickles, a former minister, ex-chairman of the governing Conservative Party and the current head of Conservative Friends of Israel, suggested the meetings would not have caused such a stir if a country other than Israel had been involved. “I cannot imagine there would be this kind of fuss if she had met various people of influence in Belgium, if that is not a contradiction in terms,” said Pickles.
Patel is a prominent Brexit supporter, and some Conservative MPs had pressed for a replacement that would maintain the political — and gender — balance.
Mordaunt had initially been tipped to replace Michael Fallon as defense secretary when he quit on November 1 following allegations of sexual harassment, but that job went to one of May’s close aides, Gavin Williamson.
“The Queen has been pleased to approve the appointment of Penny Mordaunt MP as secretary of state for international development,” a statement from Downing Street said.
Mordaunt, a 44-year-old Royal Navy reservist, is the MP for the English naval town of Portsmouth, and served as a junior defense minister before becoming minister for disabled people last year.
Elected in 2010 after a career in business and media, including as head of foreign press for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Mordaunt has cut a rather different path from many of her fellow MPs.
She took part in a celebrity television diving show in 2014, giving her appearance fee to a local swimming pool.
She also delivered a bizarre speech in the House of Commons in 2013 about Easter and poultry, reportedly a response to a bet by navy colleagues to use the word “cock” as many times as she could in parliament.
Prominent Brexit supporter and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg had earlier called for a replacement for Patel who was enthusiastic about leaving the European Union.
“As long as it’s somebody who has accepted that Brexit is happening and will support it properly… I don’t think there will be a problem,” he told the BBC.
But leading pro-European lawmaker Chuka Umunna, of the opposition Labour party, tweeted: “This is the same minister who falsely claimed Turkey was about to join the EU (during the referendum). Words fail me.”