October 18, 2018
Politics

Will Priti Patel be the only one sacked by PM?

At the time of writing, Priti Patel is spending what could be her last hours as International Development Secretary on an eight-hour flight to London – summoned back early from a trip for a showdown with Theresa May.

Downing Street were unimpressed, to say the least, by revelations about a series of undeclared meetings she held with politicians in Israel back in August, while on a family holiday, with no officials present.

As ever, it's the cover-up which gets politicians in the end. Her extraordinary press release on Monday, revealing that one of the meetings was with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that her claim the Foreign Office knew about it in advance was actually false, stoked the fire.

Image:Priti Patel with Israel's public security minister Gilad Erdan in Parliament on 7 September

Her fate appears to have been sealed by revelations that, in clear breaches of the ministerial code, she proposed in one of the meetings funding an Israel army field hospital in the Golan Heights which treats wounded opposition fighters from neighbouring Syria. Israeli rule of this area is not recognised by the UK Government.

The code states that "ministers should ensure that their statements are consistent with collective Government policy" and says they should "take special care in referring to subjects which are the responsibility of other ministers".

The section on how "holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work" could also apply.

As Labour's John Woodcock, former chair of Labour Friends of Israel, points out, the fact the meetings were attended by Lord Polak, who as well as his work with Conservative Friends of Israel, chairs a consultancy firm which offers political access, means she committed a similar offence to that for which Liam Fox was sacked back in 2011 for bringing his friend Adam Werrity to high-level meetings.

Philip Hammond leaves a recent meeting at Number 10 Downing Street
Image:Philip Hammond relationship with Mrs May is deeply strained

On Tuesday, Theresa May wanted to know if there was more to come – and another meeting with security minister Gilad Erdan in London in September, again with no officials present, emerged overnight.

This all raises a big dilemma for a chronically weak Theresa May, who has lost one cabinet minister in the past week already to the sexual harassment scandalwhich may still have some way to run. Can she attempt a wider reshuffle of her team?

Like David Cameron, she appears cautious about hiring and firing at the best of times. Now she has to contend with a backdrop of other major obstacles.

Since the snap election, cabinet ministers have been freelancing all over the place without censure.

Sajid Javid suggested putting £50bn into building housing, an idea apparently not endorsed by the Chancellor. The Chancellor's own relationship with Mrs May is deeply strained.

Boris Johnson offers some clarity to the House of Commons on his comments on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Video:Johnson 'could have been clearer' on Iran

Boris Johnson took a pummelling in the Commons on Tuesday over his erroneous claim that British detainee Nazain Zaghari-Ratcliffe was "training journalists" in Iran. Miss Zaghari-Ratchcliffe's family and employer have always said she was on holiday.

To his critics – some on his own side – this is no ordinary gaffe, but one on which the fate of the mother and two-year-old child could hinge. Angry Conservatives have told me they believe he deserves the sack more than Ms Patel.

If she has committed a sackable offence, the Prime Minister will have to examine whether Mr Johnson follows her out of the door.

The general assumption among Tory MPs is that he will survive, and will not be returned to cause Mrs May trouble on the backbenches.

But having "clarified" his remarks, the Foreign Secretary is still vulnerable. Having promised to visit her in jail in Iran this year, making some progress on that now looks critical.

First Secretary of State Damien Green has been accused of acting inappropriately
Image:First Secretary of State Damien Green denies claims he acted inappropriately

Meanwhile, Damian Green, the effective deputy prime minister and key ally of Mrs May, is still under investigation, although he categorically denies the claims against him.

The timing is terrible for wider shake-up. The Budget is in just two weeks, which would be an unusual time – to say the least – to move key ministers whose departments would be affected.

In just a week's time, the EU Withdrawal Bill – the key piece of legislation her Government must pass to take Britain out of the EU – is before the Commons and a hardcore of Tory rebels are demanding changes including a vote in Parliament on the final deal.

Other concessions, for example on the Government's so-called 'Henry VIII' powers to tweak the legislation, may well be needed to be made to get it through the House of Lords. All of this would constrain Mrs May's room for manoeuvre on Brexit ahead of a rapidly advancing deadline.

It's a catch-22: if Brexiteers are handed their P45s, the clamour in the party – which railed against the appointment of her ally Gavin Williamson at defence – could turn mutinous. If there is no change to the top team, the perception that Mrs May is in office but not in power, only deepens.

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