Britain’s senior-most Indian-origin minister Priti Patel on Thursday resigned from her Cabinet post over her unauthorised secret meetings with Israeli politicians, after a meeting at Downing Street with Prime Minister Theresa May. Patel’s position as international development minister had become increasingly untenable after it emerged that she had two further meetings with Israeli officials that were not disclosed through the proper procedure.
In her resignation, Patel again apologised and said her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated”. It follows a week of controversies around a dozen undisclosed meetings she had with other Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for which she had been forced to apologise.
Her departure from the Cabinet marks an abrupt halt to the meteoric rise of the Gujarati-origin MP, often touted as a potential future leader of the Conservative party and a prime ministerial candidate.
The 45-year-old was elected as a Conservative MP for Witham in Essex in 2010 and gained prominence in the then David Cameron-led Tory government as his ‘Indian Diaspora Champion’. She went on to be appointed to junior ministerial posts, treasury minister in 2014 and then employment minister after the 2015 general election, before May promoted her to secretary of state in the department for international development (DfID) last year.
A longstanding Eurosceptic, Patel is among the most vocal supporters of Brexit and had steered the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign in the lead up to the June 2016 referendum in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).
She must have hoped that the storm around her undisclosed meetings in Israel would die down after a formal apology before she flew out to Africa for an official tour of Uganda and Ethiopia yesterday.
But she was unable to attend any of the scheduled meetings as she was ordered to abandon the visit and fly back to London today “at the request of the prime minister”.
Earlier this week, Downing Street had said that May had accepted Patel’s apology over a series of meetings while she was on holiday in Israel in August without reporting them to the Foreign Office. But new revelations of further meetings with Israeli officials following that visit had made Patel’s position within the Cabinet very precarious.
It is understood that she met Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan in the UK Parliament complex in early September and an Israeli foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York later that month. The British premier was reportedly told about the unreported New York meeting during Patel’s apology conversation at Downing Street on Monday but only learned about her unreported meeting with Erdan after the talks.
Ministers are required to tell the UK Foreign Office when they are conducting official business overseas, but it emerged that British diplomats in Israel were not informed about any of Patel’s meetings – which included a meeting with Netanyahu and other political figures as well as charity organisations.
Opposition parties had been calling for Patel’s resignation as minister in charge of DfID and the country’s aid budget if it emerged that she had breached the ministerial code of conduct and failed to follow established protocol. In a letter to May, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett had called on the premier to either call in her independent adviser on ministerial standards to investigate, or “state publicly and explain your full reasons for why Priti Patel retains your confidence”.
In her apology statement on Monday, Patel had attributed the unreported meetings to “enthusiasm”. “In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it,” she said. Her conduct had already led May to direct her Cabinet Office to look into tightening the ministerial code of conduct to avoid any such incidents in future.
Downing Street was also forced to deny that Patel’s meetings in Israel had led to any change of political stance on the region after it emerged that in the wake of her visit in August, Patel had discussed potentially providing some of Britain’s aid money to Israel’s armed forces which run field hospitals in the disputed Golan Heights area.
Britain does not officially recognise Israeli occupation of the area, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and DfID was reportedly advised against any such move. According to an Israeli media report, during her August visit to Israel, Patel also visited an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights.
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, said the offer to send aid money to the Israeli army made a mockery of the British government’s claim to be “pushing for a two-state solution”. “It was shocking for me a Cabinet minister breaking the ministerial protocol and meeting 12 officials, high-ranking, including Netanyahu,” he added.
Patel has been a longstanding supporter of Israel and also a former vice-chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel group. Meanwhile, it was also claimed that Patel deliberately avoided facing questions over the issue from MPs in the House of Commons today, by bringing forward her flight to Kenya. It was left to her junior, DfID minister of state for the Middle East Alistair Burt, to defend his boss’ actions in Parliament.
“The meetings were not particularly secret…If I had gone to Israel, I would have wanted a schedule like this,” he told MPs. It was widely believed that the delay in dismissing Patel was because the prime minister was more at ease keeping pro-Brexit MPs close at hand to prevent them doing too much damage as opponents of government decisions on the Tory backbenches.
But with her departure now, May has lost a second senior minister within a week, after Sir Michael Fallon stood down as defence minister amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female journalists.
Another of her close Cabinet allies, first secretary of state Damian Green, is also under investigation over misconduct allegations and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been under fire over his handling of a case involving a British Iranian jailed in Tehran.
The prime minister has been desperate not to shake up her already tenuous hold on Downing Street ever since her decision to call a snap general election in June backfired and lost the Conservative party its majority in Parliament. But she has been increasingly seen as a weak leader trying to steady a very shaky regime.