Opinion

Patel storm ravages Tory fortunes

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 09, 2018

Uneasy lessons A political scandal and its many fallouts   -  Reuters

Priti Patel’s exit signals more skeletons are set to tumble out of the Conservative closet, impacting the ruling party’s image

When Yair Lapid, the chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party in Israel, tweeted a picture of him in discussion with Priti Patel, Britain’s former international development minister on August 24, he could never have anticipated the political storm it would trigger months later back in Britain.

His was one of 12 undisclosed meetings Patel held in Israel, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a family “holiday,” paid for by her, that month, full details of which were made public this week after revelations that she had held high level discussions without alerting the Foreign Office, and British officials in Israel.

A clear breach

This was in contravention of protocol, and in what the Labour party described as a “clear breach” of the ministerial code. These revelations — and details of more undisclosed meetings with officials in New York and London, and as well as her subsequent efforts to direct aid towards Israeli army work in the disputed Golan Heights — made Patel’s position increasingly untenable. Patel, who was forced to cut short an official visit to Africa, resigned on November 8, apologising for actions that had “fallen below the standards of transparency and openness” that she had advanced. Making it clear that sacking would have been inevitable had she not stepped down, Theresa May said her decision was the “right one”.

The loss of Patel is significant on a number of counts. Hers was the second cabinet resignation within a week, after defence minister Michael Fallon resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Meanwhile, foreign minister Boris Johnson faced criticism and some calls for his resignation after incorrect comments he made to a parliamentary select committee that some have warned could lengthen the prison sentence of a British-Iranian national imprisoned there.

The developments have increased pressure on the British government at a crucial time in its Brexit negotiations. While the EU has agreed to commence within the remaining 27 nations about the potential terms of a trade deal with the UK, it has refused to officially move forward with these until an agreement has been reached on a number of key issues, including Britain’s so-called “divorce bill.” One EU leader told The Times on November 9 that the EU were now preparing for a possible collapse of the May government before the end of 2017.

Ahead of Patel’s resignation many commentators pointed to the large number of revelations it took (including her reported visit to the disputed Golan Heights in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to pursue a free-lance foreign policy) before she was fired.

After her resignation others such as Labour MP David Lammy questioned why Johnson was able to keep his position, even as she “needed to go.” Over 150,000 members of the public have signed a public petition calling for Johnson to step down as Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile, the First Secretary of State Damian Green is facing a parliamentary inquiry also over conduct allegations.

Damage is done

Within the Conservative Party Patel’s departure will heighten tensions, in a party already deeply divided over Brexit and the route forward. Patel’s politics lie to the right of the party — it was only last year that she changed her stance on the death penalty in Britain (she had once been a vocal advocate for its reintroduction), while she has attacked public funding of trade unions as well as European social and employment legislation.

Patel was an ardent advocate of the Leave campaign, infamously urging British Indians to vote to leave by arguing that it had been unfair that there was one rule for EU citizens and another for non-EU ones, and suggesting that Brexit could provide an opportunity to loosen the rules for non-EU citizens, including families from India and curry chefs (it has become tougher and more expensive to bring in non-EU workers).

Her departure has angered many within the Leave campaign, including the Daily Telegraph, which reported that allies were warning she could do “hard damage” to the government. Its notable that her replacement as development minister, Penny Mordaunt was also a strong Leave campaigner.

While Patel was a prominent face of the British-India relationship — being awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman earlier this year and often speaking publicly in support of the Indian government’s policies, such as demonetisation, her departure is unlikely to have a major impact on things, given the broad-based nature of the engagement across departments.

Others within her party have also been championing close relations with India, and the BJP in particular. They include FCO minister Mark Field, whose efforts to encourage the BJP to join the International Democratic Union, a global alliance of centre-right parties, predated his time as minister for Asia.

More in store

As for the Conservative party’s efforts to woo the Indian vote, its unlikely to impact much too: Patel’s unfulfilled promises around immigration rules during the referendum campaign have proved a divisive issue and made her less of a safe-bet politician for wooing the Indian vote, though of course she will remain a prominent Conservative backbencher. The fact that she was allowed to resign rather than be fired is significant too: keeping the door open for her to plausibly return to the front bench in the future.

There is much uncertainty both around Patel’s and the Conservative government’s future: though one thing is certain. One can expect further revelations, and potentially damaging ones. The Labour party is pushing for the government to clarify inconsistencies in what has emerged, potentially leaving space for senior Conservative politicians knowing far more about Patel’s Israeli overtures than anyone has been willing to admit, others have suggested it represented part of a far more widely-backed but behind the scenes shift in British foreign policy.

Should anything major emerge about Downing Street knowing more than it had let on, it could well prove a turning point for a repeatedly scandal-hit government.

Published on November 10, 2017

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