Theresa May’s government was rocked on Wednesday by a second cabinet resignation in a week after Priti Patel was forced to step down as international development secretary.
The minister quit after being summoned back from a trip to Uganda and Ethiopia by Downing Street after it emerged she failed to be candid with May about 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and a senior lobbyist.
The prime minister will now need to carry out another reshuffle that will create disruption and add to the sense of instability across Whitehall and Westminster as her minority government battles to retain control of the political agenda.
May and Patel met for just six minutes in the early evening. In her resignation letter, released moments after she left No 10, Patel admitted her actions “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state”.
The prime minister said Patel’s decision was the correct one. She argued in a letter to the former cabinet minister that the UK and Israel were close allies and should work closely together.
“But that must be done formally, and through official channels. That is why, when we met on Monday, I was glad to accept your apology and welcomed your clarification about your trip to Israel over the summer.”
But she added: “Now that further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated.”
Six days of revelations about Patel’s meetings dominated headlines. On Monday it emerged that she had spoken to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in August in a meeting that May did not know about and with no officials present. Thirteen meetings were held in the presence of Lord Polak, an experienced Tory lobbyist.
The move piles pressure onto May’s government following a string of controversies. The sex harassment scandal has already resulted in the resignation of the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, while one of the prime minister’s closest allies, Damian Green, is being investigated by the Cabinet office over allegations. Meanwhile there have been calls for May to sack her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, after an intervention risked lengthening the sentence of a British woman jailed in Iran.
The development will also be seen as a blow for Brexiters, for whom Patel is a standard bearer. She was also the only minority ethnic woman in the cabinet. Patel could become an outspoken backbencher and help exert pressure on May from the pro-Brexit wing of the party. MPs supportive of Patel claimed she had been subjected to a Foreign Office “hatchet job” – claiming that senior individuals in Johnson’s department had briefed against her.
A replacement for Patel was expected to be announced on Thursday. One senior MP said that May would be determined to maintain “balance” within her cabinet, both in terms of gender and the divide between ministers who backed the leave and remain campaigns in the EU referendum.
Names under discussion include Penny Mordaunt, the welfare minister who was a prominent campaigner for out, and Andrea Leadsom, the pro-Brexit leader of the House of Commons. Remainers who could be in line for promotion include Claire Perry, the climate change minister, and Alistair Burt, whose current brief spans the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office.
Patel’s return to Britain on a flight from Nairobi, Kenya, had been closely followed on the internet and in the media, with broadcasters even airing pictures of the plane she had been travelling in as it landed.
It appeared that the MP for Witham had broken ministerial rules when the BBC disclosed on Friday that she met politicians and businessmen from Israel while on holiday in August without informing departmental officials, the FCO or Downing Street in advance.
In an interview with the Guardian on the same day, she made misleading claims that Johnson had been aware of the meetings and that FCO mandarins had briefed against her.
Patel told the Guardian: “Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip]. It is not on, it is not on at all. I went out there, I paid for it. And there is nothing else to this. It is quite extraordinary.”
But on Monday she was forced to apologise and withdraw her claims about the FCO and Johnson after a meeting with May. She also admitted that she had held 12 meetings in Israel with officials, businessmen, Netanyahu and the country’s security minister.
Patel’s downfall was triggered by a failure to be entirely candid with the prime minister on Monday. It is understood that Patel told May in person that there were no other revelations due to emerge about her visit.
But her reassurances collapsed on Tuesday when it emerged that DfID officials had been asked to explore whether it would be feasible to send UK aid money to the Israeli army for humanitarian work in the occupied Golan Heights.
Her fate was sealed late on Tuesday after Downing Street confirmed that Patel had two further unauthorised meetings with senior Israeli officials after her return from Israel.
Gilad Erdan, the Israeli security minister, met Patel in parliament on 7 September. She also saw Yuval Rotem, an official from the Israeli foreign ministry, for a meeting at the UN general assembly in New York. Polak was present at both meetings.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed on Wednesday that Patel had visited an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights, a disputed area that the UK does not recognise, and failed to declare it. DfID said it could neither confirm nor deny the report.
Downing Street insisted that May knew nothing about Patel’s meetings until the controversy broke in the media late last week.
However, Burt said in the Commons that the British embassy, FCO and DfID had been informed on 24 August, immediately after the meetings took place and while Patel was still in the country.
Neither the FCO nor DfID were able to explain why No 10 had not been informed.
Patel’s resignation will prompt further calls from the Conservative right to merge DfID with the FCO.
Johnson appeared to make a play for his department to absorb DfID last month, saying it was a “colossal mistake in the 1990s to divide the Department for International Development from the Foreign Office”.
Labour’s Tom Watson claimed that he had been informed of a further meeting by Patel during her holiday with officials from the British consulate general in Jerusalem, suggesting the government had been formally notified of the situation.
“The existence of such a meeting or meetings would call into question the official account of Ms Patel’s behaviour, and the purpose of her visit,” wrote Watson in a letter to the prime minister last night, which listed a series of fresh questions.
The development comes seven days after Sir Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary over accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, which he categorically denies.
Damian Green, May’s righthand man, remains under investigation by the Cabinet Office for alleged inappropriate behaviour towards a female activist and for allegations connected to claims that pornography was found on a laptop seized by police. He denies both of these claims.
May’s administration has been hit by a series of crises since she lost her House of Commons majority in June.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010