Home > News > Priti Patel: What Went Wrong?
16 November, 2017
The ambitious politician whose reach exceeded her grasp
As Priti Patel’s political career lies in ruins, The Jewish Chronicle and other media outlets look back at how it all unfolded
By Marcus Dysch, The Jewish Chronicle 8 Nov. 2017
Just a week ago Priti Patel was guest speaker at Ort UK’s annual dinner in London, quoting the Shema to the charity’s donors.
It seemed relatively innocuous – the International Development Secretary speaking to an organisation working in dozens of countries to assist the vulnerable.
On reflection, it looks like more schmoozing from a minister who, it is now clear, allowed her ambitions to outstretch her talent, and to lead her to political disaster.
Ms Patel, 45, had been on a steady rise through the Westminster ranks since she was first elected as MP for Witham in 2010.
Previously a junior minister in the Treasury and then Employment Minister, her appointment to the Department for International Development (DfID) in July last year came after she played a leading role in the Leave campaign during the EU Referendum.
The new cabinet role propelled the Harrow-born politician onto the world stage, with meetings and contacts at the United Nations, G7, G20 and World Bank.
But from the start, Ms Patel had been cultivating contacts in the pro-Israel community, and served as a Conservative Friends of Israel vice-chair. She became a regular at the group’s high-profile events, and in January told a CFI reception that trade with Israel was “absolutely fundamental” to the UK as Brexit talks continued.
As part of her ministerial responsibilities, Ms Patel oversaw aid delivered to the Palestinian Authority, an issue which has long-vexed MPs and some British tax-payers.
A year ago she reportedly clashed with mandarins after ordering them to suspend payments to the PA over concerns that British money was being funnelled to terrorists and their families.
Her predecessor, Justine Greening, had earlier ordered a review of the system, but Ms Patel went further, despite apparent objections within DfID.
CFI, and Lord Polak, were among the first to congratulate Ms Patel on the aid suspension.
In July, DfID announced £3 million of funding for co-existence projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories after a long-running campaign from Labour Friends of Israel. CFI was “delighted” by the announcement.
With hindsight, the fall-out from the PA aid dispute was an obvious forerunner for what came to pass this summer.
More closely aligned with CFI and Lord Polak than her own department’s civil servants, Ms Patel effectively went rogue. Aside from the political implications, her actions amounted to a serious national security breach and the consequences were inevitable.
She had told CFI supporters in the past that DfID would “play its part by investing in the right things, for the right people”, but no one could have imagined how her intentions would play out.
Ms Patel was setting herself up for a huge fall. Even the most fervent Zionist would question the sense of a British government minister reportedly visiting the Golan – which Britain doesn’t recognise as Israeli territory – on a freelance foreign policy trip that wasn’t signed off by any of her more senior ministers.
She long had clear leadership ambitions, and used her ministerial speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last month to outline her intentions with only the thinnest of veils.
Ms Patel strayed beyond her international aid remit to discuss Britain’s general international role post-Brexit, invoking Margaret Thatcher and attacking Jeremy Corbyn over Labour’s antisemitism crisis.
Her conclusion: “British Conservative values are my values. And I will use them to shape a better country and a better world for all.”
As her plane returned to London on Wednesday from the curtailed Africa trip, Ms Patel may well have quietly looked out of the window and again recited the Shema.
Barely a month after uttering those hubristic words at the party conference, Priti Patel’s political career lies in ruins.
Meanwhile, veteran journalist and media analyst Tom Gross speculated on the hidden motives leading to Patel’s sacking as a British government minister for Israeli i24 News channel.
Priti Patel had to go, but this wild speculation about Israel’s grip on UK politics has to stop
Little more than a week ago, I attended a dinner in central London raising money for charitable causes in Israel. The guest of honour was Priti Patel. Her speech was fairly innocuous. She praised Israeli ingenuity, noting that she had seen the bringing of “Israeli solar energy to remote villages in Africa, to produce clean running water and electricity”.
In a short interview I conducted with her afterwards, we discussed her then department’s efforts to fight poverty and promote education. She was keen to stress that she was not a minister for “aid”, but rather for “development”, and that such development was “integral… to security and regional concerns”.
The phrase “a week is a long time in politics” has rarely been more fitting. Having mentioned a recent trip to Israel in her speech at the dinner, it turned out that on said trip she had met with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without clearing it first with the Foreign Office – and then appeared to have misled the Government as to the nature of the trip.
In a scene straight out of an Armando Iannucci political drama, Downing Street revealed that it had only found out about the extent of Ms Patel’s trip after watching BBC coverage of the story.
It is completely unacceptable for a Minister to go beyond their brief in such a fashion
It should have been immediately clear, no matter how strong one’s support for Israel may be, that Ms Patel’s position in the government was untenable. It is completely unacceptable for a Minister to go beyond their brief in such a fashion. Are there some people who are shouting louder about the incident because it involved Israel? Undoubtedly. But that does not change the fact that what Ms Patel did was beyond the pale, as it would have been with any other country, and she was right to resign.
However, as so often with such political dramas, things got out of hand. There was gross misunderstanding of the then Secretary of State’s apparent desire to give money “to the Israeli army”, for instance.
The facts are as follows. For at least the last half-decade, the Israeli government has been helping hundreds if not thousands of injured Syrians in the country’s Golan region, which borders Syria. The Golan, of extreme strategic importance, was captured by Israel from the Syrians in the Six Day War. Just a couple of months ago, the UK refused to add its voice to a UN resolution condemning Israel’s “occupation” of the Golan, noting that it was ludicrous, given that if the Golan were under Assad’s control he would likely be butchering people there too.
Ms Patel supposedly recommended that some of the UK’s aid money be used to help Israel’s efforts in this area. The UK already dispenses money to Jordan and Lebanon to aid their efforts in dealing with refugees, and it is pretty obvious that, as part of the efforts of those governments, the armies of those countries would be involved. Yet there have been no protests at UK aid money being given to the Lebanese and Jordanian armies.
Many British Jews are acutely aware that Ms Patel’s actions, together with those of any lobbyists who may have been involved, have served to further turn public opinion in the UK against Israel
This affair has had something for everyone. The anti-Zionists, convinced that Israel has some sort of nefarious grip on UK politics, now have a cause célèbre. Those who loathe the government can use it as yet another example of how Theresa May is utterly unable to control her Cabinet. Disaffected Tories can put the boot in.
Israeli politicians who met with Ms Patel have done absolutely no favours, either, to those fighting against the wild (and somewhat anti-Semitic) accusation that UK government policy is controlled from Jerusalem.
Although certain anti-Israel activists who constantly promote this deranged myth might want to consider why, if Israel really does exercise such a level of control over the British government, Ms Patel went behind the government’s back to have such meetings.
They might also want to consider, while they are at it, why the paper I work for, which is unapologetically Zionist in outlook, would have broken the news that the Government was in fact aware that Ms Patel had some of those meetings. Perhaps they might consider that, rather than this being a case of pernicious control by Zionists, this is a simply a case of a Minister overstepping her brief, and a government aware of its own weakness clumsily attempting to cover up further evidence of its vulnerable state.
Meanwhile, many British Jews are acutely aware that Ms Patel’s actions, together with those of any lobbyists who may have been involved, have served to further turn public opinion in the UK against Israel.
It seems unlikely that she will be receiving any further invites to speak at communal fundraising events.