The cabinet in the United Kingdom has been convulsed at a crucial juncture when Whitehall is at the threshold of the Brexit negotiations. Prime Minister Theresa May has lost two ministers in the span of a week, pre-eminently Michael Fallon who had to resign as Defence Secretary, and more recently Priti Patel. More accurately, Mrs May had no option but to dismiss the international development secretary for a diplomatic indiscretion or what they call “institutionalised insubordination”.
Notably, it was Ms Patel’s secret foreign policy dealings ~ specifically in the Middle East ~ that have done her in. She had met Israeli politicians and officials without informing the Foreign Office, let alone No. 10. It was without question a major breach of trust, jurisdiction, and collective responsibility; but somehow the Prime Minister had initially stopped short of a parting of the ways. Arguably, she was not prepared for another exit in the immediate aftermath of Fallon’s resignation.
Indeed, Ms Patel was even allowed to proceed on a visit to Africa over the weekend… though she was summoned from Uganda midway. The initial failure to sack Ms Patel can be interpreted as a reflection of Mrs May’s weakness as Prime Minister, most particularly after the general election upset in June.
As it turned out, the reluctance was reversed on Wednesday when Ms Patel was moved out. Unmistakable are the two contrasting responses on the part of the Prime Minister, recalling the truism once articulated by Talleyrand, the French bishop, politician and diplomat ~ “in politics, treachery is all a matter of dates”.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the meeting with Israel’s public security minister in September in the House of Commons, one that Ms Patel had not disclosed. To that was added yet another meeting in New York with the head of Israel’s foreign service. For Ms Patel, it was altogether a convoluted exercise in deception, that turned out to be a little too strong for No. 10 to digest. Hence the comeuppance last Wednesday night.
The resignation must be viewed through the broader prism of British politics and foreign policy; the episode affords no scope for a sectarian spin on her Gujarati descent.
There is little doubt that her rise within the Conservative party has been spectacular; she was even viewed as a potential leader of the Tories and a prime ministerial hopeful.
As she takes the bow, she has been remarkably gracious, saying sorry yet again, notably for her meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, and even admitting that her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness”. For Mrs May, any failure to act decisively might well have been interpreted as a sign of weakness.