Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Why Priti Patel deserves the sack even more than blundering Boris Johnson

This article is in no way intended to minimise what Boris Johnson has done. He has not only endangered the welfare of a British citizen who is being held as a political prisoner in Iran by accidentally confirming that the Iranian case that she's a UK propaganda agent is true, he has also, with Trump-like narcissism refused to issue a clear retraction, because he'd rather a woman spend extra years in prison than allow his ego to take the hit of admitting he made a foolish error.

The thing is though, as horrifying as Boris Johnson's casual disregard for the welfare of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family is, his crimes are idiocy and egotism. What Priti Patel has done is an awful lot worse.

Firstly Priti Patel decided to completely ignore the ministerial code of conduct by holding a number of political meetings in Israel without informing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, without informing the UK embassy in Israel, and without informing the Prime Minister.

She then dug herself deeper into her hole when she was caught by lying that the Foreign Office had known about her meetings at the time, and 'forgetting' to mention the most significant meeting of all that she had with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

She has now released a list of the meetings she claims to have attended, and admitted that she lied (in one of the most bizarre UK government press releases of all time) but we all know that she's only admitted this stuff because she got caught, and that it would all still be secret if she hadn't been busted.

Patel was somehow unavailable to answer urgent questions about her misconduct in parliament today, so it fell to her deputy Alistair Burt to make her excuses, and to claim that Theresa May now "considers the matter closed".

The problem of course is that Priti Patel's decision to conduct secretive 'freelance diplomacy' isn't just a breech of party discipline, it's a lot more serious.

If any civil servant was caught having secretive meetings with foreign politicians without informing the FCO of the details and following official guidelines, they'd be sacked immediately, and could even go to jail for it. The reason being that the procedures exist for reasons of national security.

For Priti Patel to have arranged all these meetings in secret, it seems highly likely that she would have used her own communications devices to make the arrangements, rather than a FCO approved device. An obvious security risk.

The next thing to note is that all FCO approved meetings require security and sweeping for bugs. Presumably none of that happened, which is another security risk.

The next problem is that no proper records were kept of the meetings, or what was discussed in the meetings, which opens Patel up to suspicions that she could have subjected to blackmail or bribery, especially if she then starts behaving in the interest of the foreign state.

Which brings us to Patel's conduct upon her return to the UK: She quickly started making inquiries into whether part of the UK Foreign Aid budget could be diverted in order to fund the Israeli military in the occupied Golan Heights (a policy that would have been in Israel's interests, and that a significant percentage of British people would have been horrified by).

Additionally she told nobody that she was making these inquiries about using the foreign aid budget to fund the Israeli military as a result of her secretive meetings in Israel.

This request makes it seem that Patel was behaving like an asset of the Israeli state, working on their behalf as an operative within the UK government. 

The only way to allay the suspicion that she was acting in this compromised manner through bribery or coercion is if she's a complete fool who thinks it's her job to do favours for the Israeli government, and can't see any problem with her having discussed these favours in secretive meetings she didn't bother to tell anyone about.

Another factor that makes the whole thing seem very suspicious is that the Israelis must be highly familiar with the normal FCO procedures, and the routine security procedures undertaken whenever foreign diplomats conduct meetings with them. They must have noticed that Patel had gone rogue, and was operating without a security detail or civil servants in attendance.

Either they must have suspected that Patel had gone rogue and was fishing for dodgy deals, or this kind of clandestine off-the-record collusion with UK ministers is actually considered normal in Israel.

Given the way Patel returned to the UK and began seeking to act in Israel's interest without giving anyone an explanation of why she was acting in that way certainly creates a suspicion that she could have been compromised. And even if we accept the idea that she was just way out of her depth and acting incompetently, that scale of incompetence along with the security breaches and disregard for the FCO rules is easily grounds for dismissal.

The fact that her behaviour has created the suspicion that she could have been compromised is surely grounds for an inquiry into her behaviour too.

But Theresa May somehow imagines that giving Patel a minor rebuke, leaving her in her job, and then briefing her ministers to tell the public that she "considers the matter closed" will be enough to take the stink away.

The problem is that the stink from this scandal won't just go away just because Theresa May declares the matter closed.

By allowing Patel to stay in her job, May has signalled her pitiful weakness to the rest of the Tory party (who will obviously imagine they can now get away with pretty much anything without punishment) to the UK public (who are already dismayed with her weak leadership and shambolic handling of the Brexit negotiations) and most catastrophically of all to foreign powers (who May's government are going to have to negotiate all those post-Brexit trade deals with).

There's no way that Patel should be allowed to walk away from this scandal with nothing more than an informal rebuke just because her boss is too damned weak to sack her. She should be sacked, and an investigation into the scandal should be launched, but Theresa May will obviously wriggle and squirm as much as possible in order to stop either of these things happening.

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