The UK’s International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, who was forced to resign mid week, had spent most of the days in the run-up to this trying to explain away her ‘unofficial’ meetings.
On a visit to Israel, the Conservative minister met not just the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also various other officials and political figures.
News of her visit broke on Friday the 3rd, the day after the British PM hosted her Israeli counterpart at Downing Street in connection with events marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Before this meeting, Prime Minster Theresa May was unaware that her international development minister had met with Israeli officials. And unaware that Patel had been accompanied at these meetings by Lord Polak, the Honorary President of the Conservative Friends of Israel.
But the problem with Patel’s meetings was that nobody in government had been informed and the protocol of informing the Foreign Office had been totally bypassed.
After the BBC’s diplomatic editor James Landale wrote that the development minister had met the Israeli PM while on holiday in Israel without telling the FCO, Patel made things worse by telling The Guardian in an interview that the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “knew about it…the Foreign Office did know about it”, a statement which she had to clarify quickly, saying that in fact even though Johnson may have known about the visit, he had not known in advance of the visit. So not only had the minister not followed the protocol but when asked to explain why, she had prevaricated about it and tried to blame the FCO.
The development minister had also repeatedly emphasised that she had been in Israel in August “on a family holiday paid for by myself” but did not elaborate on the fortuitous coincidence that had Lord Polak in Israel at the same time that she was. She also did not comment on why during the 12 day ‘family holiday’ she had spent so much time meeting officials and politicians: according to The Guardian “A full list shows she attended 12 separate events, including a meeting with Netanyahu in which ‘prospects for closer collaboration’ were discussed”. Twelve days and twelve events…so much for a family holiday!
While Patel was called in to explain things to the PM on Monday, she was not in parliament to face questions the following day as she was away in Africa on an official trip. But finally, she was forced to resign on Wednesday.
In addition to the question of whether or not Priti Patel breached the ministerial code, there was also the rather damaging revelation that she had enquired about whether some DFID funding could be sent to the Israeli army. She had actually asked civil servants to look into whether public money could be used to support humanitarian operations in the Golan Heights. This would have been projects like the medical clinics and hospitals run by the Israeli army in that area. And again, this was something that she had not informed the PM of in the Monday meeting where she was supposed to clarify questions surrounding her Israel visit.
Political observers are astonished by the matter and some have called the development minster ‘insubordinate’, accusing her of ignoring her own government’s foreign policy.
This matter has highlighted the question of the extent of influence lobbyists may have on elected officials and government ministers. Patel may have paid for her ‘holiday’ but almost certainly her stay and arrangements around various logistics would have been sorted out for her by various well-connected people inside Israel. She may insist she has friends there (“I have friends out there,” she said), but well, these are hardly school friends or family friends…
And if this ‘influence’ and friendship is viewed in the light of the Al Jazeera exposé The Lobby (earlier this year) on how the Israel lobby influences British politics, then it is all the more disturbing.
At any rate Patel’s ‘holiday’ has simply created more problems for Theresa May’s government.
A priti messy situation, as one wit remarked…