LONDON — Britain’s international development secretary resigned Wednesday evening following five days of revelations about unauthorized meetings she held during a holiday to Israel this summer.
Priti Patel quit after she was humiliatingly ordered to return to the UK from an official visit to Africa, less than 24 hours after she had departed from London.
Following a brief meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street, Patel released a letter saying she was leaving the government and conceding that “my actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a Secretary of State.”
It had been widely speculated that she would be sacked by May, but the prime minister appeared to have allowed Patel the dignity of resigning.
Staunchly pro-Israel, Patel was seen as rising star on the right wing of the Conservative party and was a charismatic and high-profile supporter of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union during last year’s referendum.
The daughter of Indian immigrants to the UK, the 46-year-old former Cabinet minister had been tipped as a potential successor to May, whose personal authority was shattered following the general election in June which robbed the Tories of a parliamentary majority.
A survey by the influential Conservative Home website after the election had placed Patel in third place in the race to replace May. She had also been seen as a favorite of both the Daily Mail newspaper — the house journal of the Tory grassroots — and newspaper baron Rupert Murdoch. Patel was one of only two Cabinet ministers invited to his wedding last year.
Patel, a former vice-chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, was appointed to the Cabinet in July 2016 following May’s arrival in Downing Street. Her fall from grace began last Friday when the BBC revealed that, during a private family holiday to Israel, Patel had held a string of meetings — including, it later transpired, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — without informing the Foreign Office.
The minister’s woes deepened when she subsequently admitted that she had given a misleading and incomplete account to the media in which she had suggested the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was aware of the meetings. Downing Street’s admission that May had not known that one of her ministers had met with Netanyahu when she welcomed the Israeli Prime Minister to No.10 last week was seen as especially damaging.
Hauled in at the start of the week for a dressing down by May, who reminded her of the rules governing ministerial visits overseas, Patel initially appeared to have weathered the media storm.
However, a steady stream of further disclosures seemed to suggest that Patel had broken her assurance to May that she had furnished Downing Street with a complete account of her actions, and led to her departure from office.
On Tuesday it was revealed that Patel had two meetings after she departed Israel which she had not listed in her statement on Monday — with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in London and Israel Foreign Ministry director general Yuval Rotem in New York.
It was also announced that Patel had sought to direct UK aid money to support Israel’s effort to treat wounded Syrians in the Golan Heights. Her department rejected the minister’s proposal.
Finally, it was reported Wednesday that, during her holiday, Patel had visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights. Because the UK does not recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights, British ministers are not supposed to visit the area under the auspices of the Israeli government.
Patel’s behavior was a breach of the ministerial code. It was notable that, as she struggled for survival over the past 24 hours, few Tory MPs, including her natural allies on the Tory right and fellow supporters of Israel on the backbenches, rushed to her defense.
Moreover, her actions have done damage to a cause for which Patel clearly cares deeply: strengthening Britain’s ties with Israel.
The secrecy surrounding the meetings — none of which, had Patel followed proper protocol, appear to have been improper for her to have attended — and the apparent attempts to cover them up have fed a media and political narrative about improper Israeli attempts to influence British policy.
There is nothing new about such charges, but they were given a new head of steam in January by a controversial undercover al-Jazeera documentary which caught former embassy official Shai Masot talking about “taking down” UK politicians who are seen as hostile to Israel.
A planned parliamentary inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which was launched after the documentary aired, only stalled because of May’s decision to call a snap general election.
Few supporters of Israel would argue that Patel is not the author of her own undoing. Nonetheless, some have questioned whether the row would have caught fire quite so dramatically — especially when the government is fighting battles on a series of fronts — had it not involved Israel.
As Sir Eric Pickles, a former Cabinet minister and chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, cheekily suggested to one newspaper last night: “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.”
Patel’s meetings have also inflicted collateral damage on Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) and its long-time president, Stuart Polak. Elevated to the House of Lords by former prime minister David Cameron two years ago, Polak arranged Patel’s meetings in Israel, and accompanied her to all but one of them.
Polak, in the words of the Jewish Chronicle’s political editor, Marcus Dysch, is “a shrewd political operator with decades of experience in the field.” He has spent the last 25 years building CFI into one of Westminster’s most formidable lobbying groups.
It counts a clutch of high-profile Tory ministers and a big chunk of the parliamentary party as supporters and attracts a guest list of 700 people to its annual lunch. More importantly, it also takes dozens of Conservative MPs and young activists to Israel each year on delegations.
Friends have defended Polak, one telling The Guardian newspaper: “He’s given his entire life to CFI, when the Conservatives have been in government and out, and when Israel has had lots of friends and few friends … Stuart is seen as someone who really cares about the issue. He’s a decent guy.”
Sympathy from friends, however, cannot disguise the fact that Polak’s enemies are also circling, with the media reporting threats to expel him from the party.
Patel’s departure from the Department for International Development also means the loss of a minster who has been attempting to tackle some of the deep-rooted issues concerning Britain’s aid spending in the West Bank and Gaza.
Last December, she tightened controls on cash given to the Palestinian Authority, directing that money should only be spent on health and education projects, amid fears that British taxpayers’ money may be helping Ramallah make payments to terrorists serving time in Israeli prisons.
Her stance is believed to have encountered resistance within her department and at the Foreign Office, neither of which are likely to rue her departure.
Indeed, in the story in which the BBC broke the news of Patel’s meetings, a Foreign Office source dropped a heavy hint that the former minister had recently been engaged in an internal government battle over funding to the PA.
“One Foreign Office source,” reported BBC diplomatic editor James Landale, “said that she had recently tried to go further, presenting a paper to the prime minister and the foreign secretary for yet more restrictions on the funding.”
“They were not particularly impressed by her arguments,” the BBC reported an insider suggesting, while another said: “She has been trying this for some time. She has been pushing to get her hands on the PA aid budget and we have been pushing back.”
The news on Tuesday that Patel had wanted UK aid money to be sent to an IDF field hospital in the Golan Heights treating Syrian refugees appeared to provoke particular ire at Westminster.
The deputy leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, for instance, spoke of Patel’s “inappropriate requests for aid to be sent to the Israeli military in the Golan Heights.” This, of course, was a somewhat distorted account of the former Cabinet minister’s intentions.
Nonetheless, as Dysch argued yesterday: “Even the most fervent Zionist would question the sense of a British government minister reportedly visiting the Golan — which Britain doesn’t recognize as Israeli territory — on a freelance foreign policy trip that wasn’t signed off by any of her more senior ministers.”
But had Patel opted for a more conventional and open approach to her visit to Israel, she could have used the trip to highlight and gain attention in the UK for the IDF’s laudable humanitarian efforts on behalf of the victims of Syria’s civil war.
Will Patel’s departure draw a line under this whole sorry affair? On Wednesday, the Jewish Chronicle reported that Downing Street told Patel not to initially disclose her September meeting with Rotem because it would embarrass the already irritated Foreign Office. It also alleged that the British government was aware of Patel’s meeting with Netanyahu hours after it had occurred and that the former Cabinet minister had discussed it with May in September.
No. 10 denied the JC’s account, but its editor, Stephen Pollard, is standing by his story.
I’m told Priti Patel *did* meet FCO officials during her trip to Israel. I’m writing to Theresa May to get clarity. pic.twitter.com/gSrlAcIpgh
— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) November 8, 2017
On Wednesday night, too, the deputy leader of the Labour party, Tom Watson, wrote to May with a series of further questions. Watson, who is a long-standing friend of Israel, suggested that he had been told Patel met with officials from the British Consulate-General in Jerusalem during her August trip. If this were the case, he charged, it would “be impossible to sustain the claim that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not aware of Ms. Patel’s presence in Israel … [and] would call into question the official account of Ms Patel’s behavior, and the purpose of her visit.”
Together, these allegations turn the focus of attention from Patel onto Downing Street and the prime minister herself. If they gain traction, they threaten to further destabilize an already enfeebled government. Were it to collapse — The Times on Thursday reported that European leaders are preparing for May’s departure before the new year — it could be Patel’s actions that lit the fuse which brings to power the virulently anti-Israel Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Robert Philpot is a freelance journalist and writer whose articles have also appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Guardian and History Today. He is the former editor of Labour’s Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.