If Patel’s return does presage her dismissal, she will be the 2nd minister to depart May’s Cabinet after Fallon resigned
LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May (picture) ordered her international development secretary to abandon a visit to Africa and return home immediately, suggesting she’s on the point of firing a member of her Cabinet as the UK government faces fresh turmoil in the middle of Brexit talks.
Priti Patel, who arrived in Kenya on Tuesday, was returning home at May’s request yesterday morning, according to a government official who asked not to be identified. On Monday, Patel admitted to holding a series of unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials behind the prime minister’s back.
On Tuesday, it emerged both that she had then suggested giving British aid money to an Israeli army project and that she had held further unauthorised meetings. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that Patel had also travelled to the Golan Heights in a breach of normal diplomatic protocol, without saying where it got the information.
“She has to go,” Vince Cable, the leader of the Opposition Liberal Democrat Party, said on the sidelines of an event in London yesterday. Cable was Cabinet minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015.
If Patel’s return does presage her dismissal, she will be the second minister to depart May’s Cabinet in one week, after Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned amid allegations over his past behaviour toward women.
For some, May’s latest headache is yet another demonstration of her weakness, which draws repeated questions over how her government can last long enough to see Brexit to the finish line. If more dominoes fall in the shape of senior ministers, the last one could ultimately be the prime minister herself.
“The destabilising effect on an already weak administration has prompted another burst of speculation that May could soon be forced to resign,” Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group said in a note to clients.
He thought one likely scenario is for May to be toppled if she fails to get a grip on the latest crisis and is ousted because her Conservative Party lawmakers judge that the government cannot go on like this — and is incapable of recovering the authority a prime minister needs.
With Brexit talks resuming in Brussels today, the blunders underscore May’s struggle to bring control to her own government.
Patel is in hot water over her secret contacts with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli politicians during a vacation in August and her subsequent confused attempts to explain her actions to May and to the public. On Monday, Patel admitted going behind May’s back to meet Netanyahu.
The following day, the prime minister’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters that on her return from her vacation, the international development secretary had asked her officials whether British aid money could be given to support the Israeli army’s relief work with Syrian refugees in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. The idea was rejected — apart from anything else, Britain doesn’t recognise Israel’s occupation of the area.
Slack later confirmed that May had only learned of this proposal that morning, when the BBC reported it. This was a day after Patel issued a statement apparently setting out the full details of her trip. The idea of giving aid money to the Israeli army was covered by a reference to “partnership” on “humanitarian work”.
Slack was unable to say who had paid for the work aspects of the trip. Patel said she funded the holiday herself. On Tuesday night, it emerged that Patel held two further unauthorised meetings with Israeli government figures in September. The Sun newspaper suggested that Patel’s failure to disclose these additional meetings to the prime minister might make it impossible for her to keep her job.
As the prime minister tries to decide how to end the furor, while also navigating the sexual- harassment scandal in Parliament that has distracted her focus from Brexit, a fresh crisis has opened up on yet another front.
May’s gaffe-prone foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, faced calls on Tuesday from Opposition parties to resign for jeopardising efforts to free an Iranian-British mother currently jailed in Iran. He even suffered a put-down by a fellow Conservative lawmaker telling him to put his own ambitions in check.