UK aid minister resigns over secret meetings with Israeli officials

By on 10/11/2017
Priti Patel was forced to resign on Wednesday as Britain’s international development secretary

Priti Patel was forced to resign on Wednesday as Britain’s international development secretary

Britain’s international development secretary Priti Patel was forced to resign on Wednesday, after she breached ministerial rules by holding secret meetings with Israeli officials. Patel has been replaced by former defence minister Penny Mordaunt.

Patel was ordered back to the UK from an official trip to Uganda by prime minister Theresa May and summoned immediately to Downing Street, where her resignation was accepted during a six-minute interview.

Shortly afterwards, Number 10 released Patel’s letter of resignation, in which she said her actions during a private holiday in Israel “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state”.

A very busy holiday

During a 12-day visit to Israel in August, Patel held 12 meetings with Israeli politicians, business leaders and charity heads, without notifying the Foreign Office in advance – a breach of protocol. Among the people she met was Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These meetings included discussions with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister for public security, information and strategic affairs; Yuval Rotem, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Yair Lapid, the leader of centrist party Yesh Atid and a former minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government.

The meetings were arranged by Conservative peer Lord Polak, who is honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobby group. He attended all but one of the meetings.

A tangled web

After Patel’s meetings were first revealed by the BBC, the secretary of state said that she had informed foreign secretary Boris Johnson of the visits, as reported by the Guardian. 

Patel was summoned to Downing Street on Monday to be “reminded of her obligations” under the ministerial code by May. She subsequently issued a statement giving details of the visit, including a list of the people she met and a clarification of remarks she had made to The Guardian.

[The Foreign Office declined to comment (to both The Guardian and the BBC)].

Of her comment that “Boris knew about the visit”, she said in the statement “this quote might have given the impression that the secretary of state had informed the foreign secretary about the visit in advance… this was not the case.” And when she had said that “The stuff that is out there is it, as far as I am concerned”, she actually had not meant to imply that “the meetings that had so far been publicly reported were the only ones which took place on her visit… other meetings also took place on her visit.”

However, it emerged on Tuesday that the minister had held two further undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials, one with Erdan in London on 7 September and one with Rotem in New York on 18 September.

Also on Tuesday, Downing Street confirmed that Patel had asked her officials to see if Britain could support humanitarian operations being conducted by the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights, but had not told May of this during Monday’s apology, as reported by the Guardian.  Britain does not officially recognise Israel’s annexation of the area.

And behind the scenes?

Patel’s unauthorised meetings were first reported by the BBC on Friday: the day after May met Netanyahu in London on a state visit to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which announced Britain’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Officials horrified

Former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “extremely unwise” for Patel to have held secret meetings with Israeli officials.

“Not only did she not tell the Foreign Office directly, so far as I’m aware the British Embassy in Israel wasn’t aware that this was happening,” he said. “Now that just shouldn’t be done… it’s not just a question of courtesy.”

Lord Ricketts, former permanent secretary to the Foreign Office, said on BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme: “I can’t think of a precedent where a senior minister visits a country, has an extensive programme like this without the Foreign Office, the foreign secretary or even the ambassador in the country knowing about it.”

Labour’s shadow minister for the cabinet office Jon Trickett said that there had been a clear breach of the ministerial code.

Patel is the second British cabinet minister to resign in a week, after defence secretary Michael Fallon stood down in a sexual harassment scandal that is sweeping Westminster. Deputy prime minister Damian Green is being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct. He denies the allegations.

Such is the state of British politics in 2017.

A new face in international development

The new international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, is the daughter of a former paratrooper and had a tough upbringing: her mother died when she was 15, and she became a carer to her younger brother. She was the first member of her family to go to university, embarking on a career in public sector and charity communications and management.

Mordaunt entered Parliament in 2010, and has held ministerial posts in the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions. A Brexiteer, her appointment retains the balance between the Tory party’s two camps within Cabinet.

[This story was modified at 16:18 GMT, 17 November 2017]

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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