May on Brink of Losing Second Top Minister in One Week

Updated on
  • Priti Patel’s job on the line over secret meetings with Israel
  • Patel and May have not yet spoken about latest revelations
Bloomberg’s Eddie Buckle reports on the turmoil within U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet.

Prime Minister Theresa May 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 U.K. government faces fresh turmoil in the midst of Brexit talks.

Priti Patel, who arrived in Kenya on Tuesday, was returning home at May’s request on Wednesday morning, according to a government official who asked not to be identified. On Monday, Patel admitted to holding a series of unauthorized 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 unauthorized meetings. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Wednesday that Patel had also traveled to the Golan Heights in a breach of normal diplomatic protocol, without saying where it got the information.

‘On the basis of what we’ve heard Priti Patel should certainly be sacked,” said Vince Cable, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat party. Cable was cabinet minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015. “She’s gone around the back of the prime minister, engaged in private diplomacy on a very delicate issue. It’s absolutely unforgivable.”

Imminent Firing?

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 behavior 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 destabilizing 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.

Brexit Overshadowed

With Brexit talks resuming in Brussels on Thursday, 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 recognize Israel’s occupation of the area.

Plot Thickens

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 unauthorized 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 Tuesday from opposition parties to resign for jeopardizing 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.

Last week, Johnson told a parliamentary committee that before Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in 2016, she had been “simply teaching people journalism as I understand it, at the very limit.” Her family and her employer, the charitable Thomson-Reuters foundation, insist she was on vacation.

‘We shouldn’t be applying a special standard to Boris Johnson,” Cable said in a question and answer session in London. “If Priti Patel must go I don’t know how he can stay. His comments were carelessness to the nth degree.”

— With assistance by Thomas Penny

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