Theresa May faces 'make or break' month after cabinet chaos forces Priti Patel out

Conservatives give the Prime Minister until Christmas to turn her administration around following second Cabinet departure

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 08 November 2017 22:32 GMT
Priti Patel out: Theresa May forces International Development Secretary to quit

Theresa May faces a “make-or-break” month after chaos in her Cabinet saw her lose a second top minister in a week.

After Priti Patel was effectively sacked on Wednesday, senior Conservatives told The Independent the Prime Minister has until Christmas to improve the Government’s performance.

Ms Patel was pushed out after she embarrassed Ms May by holding a series of unofficial meetings with top Israeli politicians, without telling Downing Street.

It appeared she would avoid losing her job after disclosing details of the meetings and apologising, but she then angered the Prime Minister when it emerged some details had been withheld.

It comes as two other cabinet members, Damian Green and Boris Johnson, are also in the spotlight, as pressure mounts to make progress in Brexit talks, amid the growing sexual harassment scandal and just days after Ms May forced Sir Michael Fallon out of his job following allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

One minister told The Independent the loss of her ministers did not in itself pose a terminal threat to Ms May’s Government, but argued that the direction of travel had to change.

The frontbencher said: “There is cumulative effect and there is a danger for the Prime Minister that she could be perceived as having lost control of events.

“That is a very difficult thing to regain once that perception is created.

“This next month to six weeks is make-or-break time. Not just domestically, not just with the EU withdrawal Bill and the Budget, but with the European Council in December and whether we get ‘sufficient progress’ in Brexit talks.”

Another senior Conservative said: “She has until Christmas to turn it around.”

Ms May forced Ms Patel to quit after she held a series of meetings with top Israeli figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without informing Number 10, and then still did not disclose all the details despite being given the chance.

The ex-international development secretary arrived at Downing Street at about 6pm on Wednesday for an hour-long face-to-face with the Prime Minister, having been ordered back to the country from Africa.

In a letter to Ms May published afterwards, Ms Patel said: “I accept that in a meeting with organisations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel my actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state.

Theresa May under pressure to sack Boris Johnson and Priti Patel over humiliating errors

“While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.

“I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the Government for what has happened and offer my resignation.”

In response the Prime Minister reminded Ms Patel that cooperation between Israel and the UK had to take place “formally, and through official channels”.

Priti Patel puts on a brave face as she leaves Downing Street

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.”

It first emerged last Friday that Ms Patel had travelled to Israel for a 13-day visit, which she described as a “holiday” paid for by herself.

During the trip she was accompanied in meetings by Lord Polak, president of Conservative Friends of Israel, and discussed departmental business.

It triggered accusations that she had ignored ministerial rules that she should tell the Foreign Office about overseas business and embarrassed Ms May who was kept in the dark about it for months.

Theresa May met Benjamin Netanyahu without knowing Ms Patel had met him a few weeks before

When the trips emerged, Ms Patel initially told a reporter that Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office had been informed, but later admitted in a statement that it was not.

She publicly apologised and accepted that she had not acted in “accord with the usual procedures”, and was forced at a meeting with Ms May to set out all of the appointments she had in Israel, 12 in total.

But over the next two days details of her trip and other meetings emerged that had not been shared, including that she discussed the idea of handing UK aid cash to the Israeli army to carry out humanitarian operations in the Golan Heights, that she had visited an Israeli field hospital there and had a further meeting with another Israeli minister, Gilad Erdan, in Westminster – which he tweeted about.

One fellow frontbencher told The Independent: “It was inevitable and right and frankly I would have just sacked her immediately without summoning her home, and then told her to find her own way home.

“She broke every elementary rule in the book.”

Ms Patel won some backing from Brexit supporting MPs, but even many of those accepted what had happened, with one Conservative saying: “She had to go didn’t she. You get the suspicion she was out their canvassing for a leadership bid.

“That’s what it feels like – something that was ambitious, but ultimately rather clumsy.”

Another Tory said the furore around her meetings may yet be damaging, despite her removal, adding: “It’s not entirely clear that we have got to the bottom of who said what to whom, but this does seem mainly self-inflicted.”

Labour said it would continue pressing for more information about how much the Prime Minister knew about Ms Patel's secret meetings.

Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor said Ms May must either get control of her “decaying government” or step aside.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman Jo Swinson said: “Number 10 must answer questions about their complicity in this scandal.”

Boris Johnson claims no connection between his comments and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's sentence

Ms May’s authority will now be under intense scrutiny as she handles difficulties faced by other ministers – she cannot be seen to be letting them get away with mistakes or misdemeanours, but can ill-afford to further destabilise her administration by sacking more of her cabinet.

On Tuesday Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson found himself furiously backpedalling over comments he made about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The 38-year-old British woman was arrested and jailed in Iran, accused of spreading propaganda, with a central part of her defence being that she had never worked teaching journalists in the country, but was merely there on holiday.

But when Mr Johnson mistakenly told MPs in a public hearing that she had been teaching journalists, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was hauled in front of an Iranian court and threatened with another five years in prison – on top of her existing five-year sentence.

Ex-defence secretary Michael Fallon was pushed out a week ago following claims that he made inappropriate advances on journalists and made poorly judged comments to other MPs before becoming a minister, and after joining the cabinet to fellow frontbenchers too – though he denies it.

Damian Green, Ms May’s effective deputy, and Mark Garnier, face Cabinet Office investigations over allegations of inappropriate behaviour. Mr Green denies allegations against him.

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