Those charged with being the public faces of Britain internationally have either been dispatched or become a liability and an embarrassment. First out of the Downing Street backdoor was Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon. His “safe pair of hands” had, it seems, wandered over a female journalist’s knee, and there were other allegations of inappropriate behavior.
The soap opera drama reached epic proportions over the fate of International Development Secretary Priti Patel. More than 22,000 people tracked her flight from Nairobi to London on Nov. 8 as she was ordered back for the sack by Downing Street. The BBC splashed out on a helicopter to give viewers live updates of Patel’s journey from the airport to central London.
All of this seems particularly absurd for a junior member of the Cabinet, not least given the barely disguised contempt most of her officials had for her limited capabilities. The scandal encapsulated her political naiveté, lack of judgement and ethical shortcomings.
In August, Patel was on holiday in Israel. For two days, she carried a private program of political meetings in Israel with no notice to the Foreign Office and no officials present. The program was arranged by the president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, a career lobbyist for Israeli government interests with commercial contracts related to Israel.
To top it all, Patel met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She even discussed his forthcoming visit to London to “celebrate” the Balfour Declaration. Picture it: A British Cabinet minister discusses with a foreign leader his impending meeting with the British prime minister without ever telling until after it took place.
Moreover, Patel’s own deputy, the Foreign Office and International Development Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt, was in Israel and the occupied territories at the same time and had no knowledge his boss was there.
It is still not clear exactly what Patel was up to, perhaps indulging in her own freelance foreign policy. Many cite her undisguised leadership ambitions. She reportedly sought support for a leadership bid from a Conservative Party donor in Israel.
Palestinians, already seething about the May government’s almost total silence about their historic fate 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, had their worst suspicions confirmed by this Israel-lobby-arranged visit, not least that Patel was even considering providing aid to an Israeli military field hospital treating Syrians in the occupied Golan Heights.
The very concept of an army that daily violates international law being funded by British aid was an extraordinary idea, and was rightly nixed by the Foreign Office. “The department’s view is that aid to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) in the Golan Heights is not appropriate.”
The resignation of the defense and international development secretaries, as well as the latest misdemeanor by the foreign secretary, have highlighted the shortcomings of the British foreign policy decision-making elite.
All the above offenses were compounded by Patel trying to hide details of the visit that were bound to come out. She flew to Kenya on an earlier flight, leaving Burt to try to defend her behavior in Parliament, an act of supreme cowardice to add to her list of misdemeanors. But any British Cabinet would be strengthened by Patel’s departure. Many think this might also be the case with Johnson.
That he remains in office is probably due to the weakness of May’s position and the crisis in government. Appearing in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Johnson was asked about the fate of a British national being held in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He said she had been “training journalists” in Iran.
Tehran has seized on this. The British position and that of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family was always that she was in Iran on holiday. No evidence has been shown that she was there to work. Johnson’s careless words may be used to prolong her sentence of five years. His misdemeanor may have been accidental, not deliberate like Patel’s, but it could have far more serious consequences.
This adds up to an almost total gutting of the British foreign policy decision-making elite, its leadership shooting itself in the foot with regular ease. Johnson has survived so far, but like the government, his fingertips are all that are keeping him in office. It is not as if the other pillar of British foreign policy — negotiations over Brexit — are progressing smoothly, given that all parties are increasingly preparing for a no-deal scenario.
The British foreign policy establishment will survive and even thrive. Capable deputy ministers can take work forward, and the British diplomatic service is still arguably the finest in Europe and further afield, given the gutting of the US State Department. Still, as Britain clambers out of the EU exit door, its partners and allies across the globe will hope this is just a temporary glitch.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech