- The International Development Secretary apologises after details of secret meetings with the Israeli government emerge.
- Priti Patel had 12 private meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, other government figures and a Conservative lobbyist.
- Downing Street resist calling for Patel to resign.
- Scandal reveals the weakness of the prime minister’s authority over her government.
LONDON — In ordinary times any one of the scandals currently dogging Theresa May’s government would be overwhelming. Whether it’s the defence secretary resigning over sexual harassment claims, the first secretary of state being accused of accessing “extreme pornography” on parliamentary computers, or the foreign secretary accidentally making comments that risk condemning a British woman to an extra five years in jail, before refusing to apologise.
But of all the extraordinary scandals engulfing this government, there is one that most clearly demonstrates the current state of May’s government.
The story of the International Development Secretary’s unofficial trip to Israel in which she held 12 secret meetings with senior Israeli figures, including the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is more remarkable the more you examine it.
Let’s break it down. In August this year, Priti Patel went on what she still describes as a “family holiday” to Israel. While there she held no fewer than 12 meetings with senior members of the government, NGOs and businesses, while accompanied by a prominent Conservative lobbyist, Lord Polak.
We cannot know for certain what Patel and Lord Polak discussed with the Israeli Prime Minister for the simple reason that there is no official UK government record of the meetings. And there is no official record because there was not a single UK government official in the room. The only account we have of the meetings is her own.
And that account is highly suspect. When the existence of two of these meetings was first discovered last week, Patel immediately made two false claims. The first was that the Foreign Office was aware of the trip in advance. It was not. The second was that there were no further meetings that took place other than the two had been reported. There were, in fact, a further ten.
As Patel admits herself in a truly remarkable statement published on Monday:
Clarification of remarks to the Guardian newspaper
On Friday 3rd November, the Secretary of State was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as follows:
“Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip].
“This quote may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance. The Secretary of State would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The Foreign Secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
It goes on.
“The stuff that is out there is it, as far as I am concerned. I went on holiday and met with people and organisations. As far as I am concerned, the Foreign Office have known about this. It is not about who else I met, I have friends out there.
“This quote may be read as implying that the Secretary of State was saying that the meetings that had so far been publicly reported were the only ones which took place on her visit. The Secretary of State would like to take the opportunity to correct this impression: she is clear that other meetings also took place on her visit, in addition to those which had been publicly reported at the time of her making these statements.”
The story, if anything, gets even worse once Patel returns to the UK. Rather than informing Downing Street of her trip, both Patel and the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, kept it entirely secret until it was unearthed by the media last week.
At yesterday’s Downing Street lobby briefing, the prime minister’s spokesman confirmed that May did not know about any of the meetings all until last Friday, some three months after they took place and one day after the prime minister held her own meeting with Netanyahu.
Breaching the code
Yet when asked whether Patel had broken the ministerial code, the prime minister’s spokesman said the code was unclear on the matter and that the Cabinet Office would look at changing it.
This is quite extraordinary. Of course, it’s true to say that the ministerial code does not include a paragraph explicitly forbidding ministers from conducting their own covert foreign policies, just as it doesn’t explicitly forbid them from independently launching foreign wars, or privately signing international trade deals on their day off.
The point is that it shouldn’t have to. The prime minister’s authority on these matters should be clear and obvious. Any major transgression of that authority should be final and career-ending.
In any ordinary circumstances, a member of the government embarking on a secret diplomatic mission, in which they held unauthorised talks with a foreign power would be an instant firing offence. The fact that it no longer is, shows the dire state of May’s government and what is left of her authority over it.
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