British prime minister Theresa May has lost her second cabinet minister in a week, after Priti Patel, the international development secretary, was forced to resign over undisclosed meetings with a lobbyist and Israeli politicians.
Ms Patel’s departure adds to the instability around the British government, which is also struggling with sexual harassment allegations, cabinet splits on Brexit and a lack of firm leadership from Downing Street.
Ms Patel was summoned back from an official trip to Africa on Wednesday. After a nine-hour flight, she arrived at Downing Street via the back door. There Ms May demanded her resignation after a six-minute meeting that aides described as "short but cordial".
Ms May did not immediately announce a successor to Ms Patel
The prime minister had admonished Ms Patel on Monday over 12 unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians, officials and organisations, which took place during a “family holiday” in August.
After details of further undisclosed meetings emerged – as well as reports that Ms Patel flouted government policy by visiting the occupied Golan Heights on her holiday – Ms May concluded she had no choice but to let the minister go.
In her resignation letter, Ms Patel offered a “fulsome apology” and admitted that her actions “fell below the standards that are expected of a Secretary of State” and of the standards of “transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated”. Ms May replied that it was “right” that Ms Patel had resigned, given “further details” that had emerged since Monday. UK-Israeli relations “must be done formally, and through official channels”, the prime minister said.
Ms Patel’s departure brings further upheaval to Ms May’s cabinet and threatens to shake its fragile equilibrium: Ms Patel was a leading figure in the pro-Brexit campaign and is likely to be a dangerous opponent on the backbenches.
Downing Street anger
The prime minister had hoped to avoid a further ministerial shuffle following the resignation last week of Sir Michael Fallon, defence secretary, following a series of allegations about his personal behaviour.
Ms May's deputy, Damian Green, is still under investigation by the Cabinet Office following similar allegations, while Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has been criticised for inaccurate remarks that may have affected the safety of a British-Iranian national detained in Iran.
Labour's Jon Trickett, a shadow Cabinet Office minister, called Ms Patel's resignation "an anticlimax" that showed Ms May's "supreme weakness".
Downing Street reacted angrily to revelations that Ms Patel had held a further private meeting with Israel's public security minister Gilad Erdan in London in September when her ministry had earlier declined a request for a meeting from Mr Erdan's office.
But the prime minister is herself facing questions over what she knew about Ms Patel’s 12 meetings with Israeli politicians, officials and organisations, which took place during a family holiday in August.
Downing Street has claimed Ms May was not informed about the meetings until last Friday, more than two months after the Foreign Office found out. It denied a report in the Jewish Chronicle that she had found out in September about Ms Patel's meeting with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Ms Patel's decision to attend the string of meetings in Israel in August – plus two further meetings in London and New York – was described by one cabinet minister as "extraordinary" and as "inexplicable" by one ally of Ms May.
"This is not anti-Israel bias," said John Woodcock, a Labour MP and officer of Labour Friends of Israel. "This matters because it's about protecting the integrity of British foreign policy."
Her conduct appeared to undermine the Foreign Office, which is in charge of British diplomacy. It raised questions about Ms Patel's closeness to Stuart Polak, a lobbyist who is the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, and who organised the meetings and attended all but one of them.
Since becoming international development secretary last July, Ms Patel had already changed UK aid policy in line with key demands of Lord Polak. In December, she placed strict limits of UK aid to the Palestinian Authority.
In July 2017, her department announced £3 million (€3.4 million)would be channelled into so-called coexistence projects for Palestinians.
Lord Polak and the CFI's executive director James Gurd said at the time that they were "delighted" that Ms Patel had "secured this unprecedented funding, which together with the redirection of Palestinian Authority aid to health and education will ensure taxpayers value for money while directly supporting conflict resolution".
After her trip to Israel in August, Ms Patel proposed spending UK aid money to support Israeli army’s humanitarian work with displaced Syrians in the Golan Heights.
Her officials rejected the idea, on the basis that the UK and the UN consider the region to be part of Syria. During the August trip, Ms Patel did not meet any groups representing Palestinian interests. "Of course she has met those on other occasions," her junior minister Alistair Burt told MPs this week.
But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, described Ms Patel's trip as "scandalous" and as evidence of "Israeli meddling in other governments' affairs". – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017