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Turmoil in the Brexit club

Priti Patel’s exit from the Theresa May Cabinet could signal greater instability ahead

When Yair Lapid, the chairperson of the centrist Yesh Atid party in Israel, tweeted a photograph of him in discussion with Priti Patel, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development at the time, on August 24 this year, he could never have anticipated the political storm it would trigger months later back in Britain. His was one of 12 undisclosed meetings that Ms. Patel held in Israel, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a “family holiday” paid for by her that month, full details of which were made public this week after revelations that she had held high-level discussions without alerting her Foreign Office and British officials in Israel. This was in contravention of protocol, and in what the opposition Labour Party described as a “clear breach” of the ministerial code.

These revelations — and details of more undisclosed meetings with officials in New York and London, as well as her subsequent efforts to direct aid towards Israeli army work in the disputed Golan Heights — made Ms. Patel’s position increasingly untenable. Ms. Patel, who was forced to cut short an official visit to Africa, resigned on Wednesday, apologising for actions that had “fallen below the standards of transparency and openness” that she had advanced. Making it clear that sacking would have been inevitable had she not stepped down, British Prime Minister Theresa May said her decision was “right”.

Two resignations

The exit of Ms. Patel is significant on a number of counts. Hers was the second cabinet resignation within a week, after Defence Minister Michael Fallon resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism, and some calls for his resignation too, after incorrect comments he made to a parliamentary select committee that some have warned could lengthen the prison sentence of a British-Iranian national imprisoned in Iran.

The developments have increased pressure on the British government at a crucial time in its Brexit negotiations. While the European Union (EU) has agreed to commence discussions within the remaining 27 nations about the potential terms of a trade deal with the U.K., it has refused to officially move forward with these until an agreement has been reached on a number of key issues, including Britain’s so-called “divorce bill.” One EU leader told The Times on Thursday that the EU is now preparing for a possible collapse of the May government before the end of 2017.

Ahead of Ms. Patel’s resignation, many commentators pointed to the large number of revelations it took (including her reported visit to the disputed Golan Heights in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to pursue a freelance foreign policy) before she was forced to resign. After her resignation, others such as Labour MP David Lammy questioned why Mr. Johnson was able to keep his position, even as she “needed to go.” Over 150,000 people have signed a public petition calling for Mr. Johnson to step down as Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile, the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, is facing a parliamentary inquiry over conduct allegations.

Within the Conservative Party, Ms. Patel’s departure will heighten tensions, as the party is already deeply divided over Brexit and the route forward. Ms. Patel’s politics lie to the right of the party — it was only last year that she changed her stance on the death penalty in Britain (she had once been a vocal advocate for its reintroduction), while she has attacked public funding of trade unions as well as European social and employment legislation.

Leave campaigners

Ms. Patel was an ardent advocate of the Leave campaign, infamously urging British Indians to vote to leave by arguing that it had been unfair that there was one rule for EU citizens and another for non-EU ones, and suggesting that Brexit could provide an opportunity to loosen the rules for non-EU citizens, including families from India and curry chefs (it has become tougher and more expensive to bring in non-EU workers). Her departure has angered many within the Leave campaign, including the Daily Telegraph newspaper, which reported that allies were warning she could do “hard damage” to the government. It is notable that her replacement as Development Minister, Penny Mordaunt, was also a strong Leave campaigner.

Ms. Patel was a prominent face of the British-India relationship — being awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman earlier this year and often speaking publicly in support of the Indian government’s policies, such as demonetisation. But her departure is unlikely to have a major impact on things, given the broad-based nature of the engagement across departments. Others within the Conservative Party have also been championing close relations with India, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular. They include Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Mark Field, whose efforts to encourage the BJP to join the International Democratic Union, a global alliance of centre-right parties, predated his time as minister for Asia.

The Indian vote

As for the Conservative Party’s efforts to woo the Indian vote, Ms. Patel’s exit is unlikely to impact much too: her unfulfilled promises around immigration rules during the referendum campaign have proved a divisive issue and made her less of a safe-bet politician to attract the Indian vote, though of course she will remain a prominent Conservative backbencher. The fact that she was allowed to resign rather than be fired is significant too: it keeps the door open for her to plausibly return to the front bench in the future.

There is much uncertainty around both Ms. Patel’s and the Conservative government’s future, but one thing is certain: one can expect further revelations, and potentially damaging ones. The Labour Party is pushing for the government to clarify inconsistencies in what has emerged, potentially leaving space for senior Conservative politicians knowing far more about Ms. Patel’s Israeli overtures than anyone has been willing to admit. Others have suggested it represented part of a far more widely backed but behind the scenes shift in British foreign policy. Should anything major emerge about Downing Street knowing more than it had let on, it could well prove a turning point for Ms. May’s repeatedly scandal-hit government.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 8:19:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/turmoil-in-the-brexit-club/article20111579.ece

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