Theresa May is considering sacking a second cabinet minister in a week after Priti Patel admitted two more secret previously undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials.
The international development secretary’s Wednesday itinerary for her trip to Africa is reported to have changed amid speculation that she is being summoned back to London to be dismissed.
Patel has been facing demands for her to quit her post after failing to come clean with Theresa May over 12 other meetings she has held with senior Israeli figures, including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
No 10 made it clear that if more undisclosed details about the trip emerged Patel could be dismissed. Now sources from the Department for International Development (DfID) have confirmed that Patel held further meetings in September with Israeli government officials without adhering to proper procedures.
On 7 September, she met Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister for public security, and was photographed with him on the House of Commons terrace.
On 18 September, while in New York, Patel met Yuval Rotem, an official from the Israeli foreign ministry.
Neither meeting was set up or reported in a way which accorded with proper procedures, sources said.
One of Patel’s backbench supporters, Nadhim Zahawi, offered only lukewarm backing for her on Wednesday. Zahawi, a member of the foreign affairs select committee, told BBC News: “It is totally in the gift of the prime minister [how] any cabinet minster should serve in government ... Ultimately it is up to the prime minister what she does if there are new revelations.”
Patel avoided widespread Commons criticism of her conduct on Tuesday by travelling to Kenya before a planned visit to Uganda. Following DfID’s latest disclosures meetings in Uganda were cancelled, according to the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith.
The Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, Christopher Hope, said he had been told that Patel’s visit to the Africa had been broken off.
Patel had already faced censure from Downing Street on Tuesday night, after it emerged she had failed to inform the prime minister of departmental discussions over plans to send aid money to the Israeli army to support humanitarian operations in the Golan Heights.
She was also rebuked by No 10 after giving the false impression in an interview with the Guardian that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Foreign Office knew about the meetings.
At 13 out of a total of 14 meetings with Israeli officials over August and September, she was accompanied by Lord Polak, a lobbyist and a leading member of Conservative Friends of Israel.
No 10 on Tuesday said Patel had not informed the prime minister about the “aid to Israel” discussions at a crunch meeting on Monday which was supposed to draw a line under the row.
Instead, May learned about the proposals from reports in the media, a Downing Street source said.
Conservative MPs failed to rally behind Patel on Tuesday when her conduct was debated in parliament, which will be noted by her critics within the cabinet and the party.
Patel came under pressure following reports by the BBC on Friday that she had used a holiday in Israel to meet a series of ministers without informing any UK government officials.
On the same day, she told the Guardian that Johnson and Foreign Office officials knew of the meetings.
After her meeting in Downing Street on Monday, No 10 issued a statement saying that a possible breach of the ministerial code had been discussed.
On Tuesday morning, it emerged that a conversation had taken place between Patel and Israeli officials about funnelling money via the Israeli army.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The secretary of state did discuss potential ways to provide medical support for Syrian refugees who are wounded and who cross into the Golan for aid.
“The Israeli army runs field hospitals there to care for Syrians wounded in the civil war. But there is no change in policy in the area. The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army.”
May learned of Patel’s 12 meetings with Israeli politicians on Friday – a day after the PM held a meeting with Netanyahu in Downing Street to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration.
Patel has clarified her previous remarks to the Guardian in which she had appeared to suggest that Johnson knew of her schedule beforehand.
A statement issued by Patel and DfID said: “This quote may have given the impression that the secretary of state had informed the foreign secretary about the visit in advance.
“The secretary of state would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
Patel also said: “This summer I travelled to Israel, on a family holiday paid for by myself. While away I had the opportunity to meet a number of people and organisations.
“I am publishing a list of who I met. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was aware of my visit while it was under way.
“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it.”
Patel did not tell British diplomats she was holding the meetings, which is the convention.
The Labour party called for an immediate investigation into whether Patel broke the ministerial code of conduct.
In Patel’s absence from parliament, only four of her own party’s backbenchers spoke in the debate and expressed concerns and reservations about recent events involving Patel.
This article was written by Matthew Weaver and Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th November 2017 08.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010