And so Priti Patel returned from her trip to Africa, with more than 20,000 watching her progress on FlightRadar as the Kenya Airways flight winged its way towards Heathrow. She was then given the opportunity to resign as International Development secretary, to the intense relief of many civil servants who wished it had happened rather earlier.
Her departure was spun as her having failed to maintain the “high standards” of Government, as if Theresa May and her increasingly shambolic administration would be able to identify “high standards” if they jumped up and slapped them in the face. Ms Patel had been making up foreign policy on the fly, to the clear joy of the Israeli Government, who must have thought all their PR birthdays had come at once.
The problem for Theresa May, though, is that the obligatory exchange of outwardly courteous letters is not the end of the matter, not nearly. Two very long shadows have been cast over the Prime Minister’s credibility as a result of the affair, one of which came from Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who, it is fair to assume, has good contacts with the administration in Tel Aviv (and Jerusalem, if you prefer).
He claimed “Number 10 instructed Development Secretary Priti Patel not to include her meeting with the Israel foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York on 18 September in her list of undisclosed meetings with Israelis which was published on Monday”, and continued “although Ms Patel’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not authorised in advance, the British government was made aware of it within hours”.
There was more. “On 22 August - the same day as Ms Patel spoke to Mr Netanyahu - Middle East minister Alistair Burt and David Quarrey, the British Ambassador to Israel, met Michael Oren, Deputy Minister at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. According to the notes of the meeting, Mr Oren referred to Ms Patel having had a successful meeting with Mr Netanyahu earlier. It is understood that this information was then conveyed to Number 10”.
Now, that might have looked a bit like it was coming out of left field, except that Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has also been digging around, coming up with yet more questions likely to embarrass the PM. He has concluded that the idea Theresa May didn’t know about the meetings Ms Patel was undertaking doesn’t hold water.
As the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg noted yesterday, “Tom Watson writing to PM over claims passed to him that Patel met FCO officials in Jerusalem, which he says makes it 'impossible to sustain the claim that the FCO was not aware of Ms Patel's presence in Israel’”. Pollard’s JC intervention got some serious stick earlier in the day, but when you put it alongside Tom Watson’s question, it all makes perfect sense.
Yes, Priti Patel was totally out of order in some of her actions last August, and possibly at other times as well. But the idea 10 Downing Street didn’t know what was going on is looking increasingly shaky - as is Theresa May’s grip on power. More to come later.