Theresa May faces increasing pressure to strip two more cabinet ministers of their posts following separate conroversies involving Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.
Patel jumped before she was pushed, and offered her resignation yesterday. In her resignation letter, Patel said her “actions fell below the high standards that are expected.”
Senior Conservatives said both ministers had committed sackable offences which have materially damaged the UK’s interests and those of its citizens.
The controversy around Patel’s unofficial trip to Israel grew, as it emerged she may have omitted to tell May she discussed funnelling UK aid cash to the country’s army despite Downing Street asking for full details of her visit.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faced pressure in the House of Commons, were he denied he made undiplomatic comments that were clearly recorded in Parliament and which led to the Iranian judiciary threatening to double a British woman’s prison sentence unfairly. The 38-year-old British woman was arrested and jailed in Iran, accused of spreading propaganda, with a central part of her defence being that she had never worked teaching journalists in the country, but was merely there on holiday.
But when Johnson mistakenly told MPs in a public hearing that she had been “teaching journalists”, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was hauled in front of an Iranian court and threatened with another five years in prison – on top of her existing five-year sentence.
These ministerial gaffes come less than a week after the Prime Minister was forced to push Michael Fallon out of her Cabinet, following allegations about sexually inappropriate behaviour. And then there are the emerging allegations regarding Damian Green and Mark Garnier, who both face Cabinet Office investigations over inappropriate conduct, too.
According to the government, Priti Patel, the International development secretary, failed to inform the Prime Minister about the meetings she had in Israel, including discussions of plans to send funds to the Israeli army, to support “humanitarian operations” in the Golan Heights. Amid the recent Conservative diplomatic omnishambles, Patel was already facing demands she should quit the post after failing to come clean with Theresa May over 12 other meetings she has held with senior Israeli figures, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sources from the Department for International Development (DfID) confirmed on Tuesday night that Patel held further meetings in September with Israeli government officials without adhering to proper procedures. It emerged that Patel had two further meetings in September without government officials. She met the Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan in Westminster and Israeli foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York.
She was also rebuked by No 10 after giving the false impression in an interview with the Guardian that foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office knew about the meetings.
At 13 out of a total of 14 meetings with Israeli officials over August and September, she was accompanied by Lord Polak, a lobbyist and a leading member of Conservative Friends of Israel.
No 10 on Tuesday said Patel had not informed the prime minister about the “aid to Israel” discussions at a crunch meeting on Monday which was supposed to draw a line under the controversy.
The Foreign Office advised that because Britain did not officially recognise Israel’s annexation of the area, (it’s been an area of longstanding geopolitical dispute) it would be hard for the Department for International Development to work there.
Speaking in the Commons, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt defended Patel’s “perfectly legitimate” right to raise the matter – saying it was within the context of providing medical help for Syrian refugees who could not get assistance in their own country.
Labour’s Kate Osamor said it was a “black and white case” of the ministerial code being broken, and called for Patel’s resignation.
Writing to the prime minister, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said he understood Patel had met UK officials during the holiday.
“I have been informed that while she was in Israel, Ms Patel met officials from the British consulate general Jerusalem, but that the fact of this meeting has not been made public,” he wrote.
“If this were the case, then it would surely be impossible to sustain the claim that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not aware of Ms Patel’s presence in Israel.”
He added: “The existence of such a meeting or meetings would call into question the official account of Ms Patel’s behaviour, and the purpose of her visit.”
In a her disjointed statement on the government site, Patel says: “On Friday 3rd November, the Secretary of State was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as follows:
“Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip].”
This quote may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance. The Secretary of State would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The Foreign Secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.
“The stuff that is out there is it, as far as I am concerned. I went on holiday and met with people and organisations. As far as I am concerned, the Foreign Office have known about this. It is not about who else I met, I have friends out there.”
And: “The Secretary of State regrets the lack of precision in the wording she used in these statements, and is taking this opportunity to clarify the position.”
The comments looked like a pretty terrible attempt to gloss over what were apparently out and out lies. On the face of it.
But perhaps the lies are not entirely Patel’s.
She then goes on to disclose the meetings in her statement. The official story is that Theresa May learned about the proposals from reports in the media, and Downing Street sources “confirmed” this.
However, Stephen Pollard at the Jewish Chronicle says that he understands Patel was told by Number 10 not to include the extra meetings so as not to embarrass the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In an interesting development, information emerged from two different sources, that Patel did disclose the meeting with Mr Rotem but was told by Number 10 not to include it as it would embarrass the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In addition, the article goes on to say that although Patel’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not authorised in advance, the British government was made aware of it within hours.
The Jewish Chronicle says: “On 22 August – the same day as Ms Patel spoke to Mr Netanyahu – Middle East minister Alistair Burt and David Quarrey, the British Ambassador to Israel, met Michael Oren, Deputy Minister at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. According to the notes of the meeting, Mr Oren referred to Patel having had a successful meeting with Mr Netanyahu earlier.
It is understood that this information was then conveyed to Number 10.
In addition, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to Patel in advance of the UN General Assembly and they discussed the Development Secretary’s meeting with Mr Netanyahu, as well as the details of Ms Patel’s plan for UK aid to be shared with the Israelis. Mrs May agreed that the idea was sensible but needed sign off from the FCO.”
Of course Downing Street deny telling International Development Secretary Patel to withhold the information. A spokesman for May accepted Number 10 knew about a meeting between Patel and Yuval Rotem, but said the minister’s department did not put it in a list disclosing 12 meetings that took place on her summer holiday “because it occurred several months later.”
The Number 10 spokesman said Patel did disclose the September 18 meeting when she met and was censured by Theresa May on Monday.
He explained that the reason the meeting did not appear on the list of disclosed appointments was because the Department for International Development had confined the list to those that took place on her summer holiday to Israel.
Several reports have claimed Number 10 instructed Patel not to publicise the Rotem meeting, because it would be too embarrassing for Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office.
It was thought the emergence of the Rotem meeting in New York would give the prime minister further reason to sack Patel, who was expected to lose her job yesterday.
However, she resigned. She was ordered back from an official trip in Africa by the PM and summoned to Downing Street over the row, yesterday.
In her resignation letter, Patel said: “While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.
“I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation.”
In her reply, the prime minister said: ‘‘As you know the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally, and through official channels.
”That is why, when we met on Monday I was glad to accept your apology and welcomed your clarification about your trip to Israel over the summer.
“Now that further details have come to light it is right you have decided to resign.”
The question is what did the Foreign Office already know of Priti Patel’s visit to Israel?
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