Adapting Oscar Wilde, to lose one minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. In the case of Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, Theresa May, it may also be weakness and incompetence warning of the danger of collapse.
In the space of seven days she sacked both her defence minister, Sir Michael Fallon, and another cabinet minister, the international development secretary, 45-year-old Priti Patel. With roots lie in the Gujarati community in Uganda, her family made good in the UK through a chain of small newsvendor’s shops. She herself was born in London and is married to a white Briton. A long-standing Eurosceptic, Ms Patel was a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign during the build-up to the 2016 referendum on continued European Union membership. She is regarded as being ideologically on the party’s right and has been called a Thatcherite.
Mrs May would probably have bounced back in the party’s esteem if despite these setbacks, she had brought herself also to sack her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, who is accused – among a long litany of charges – of endangering the security of a British woman in Iran with a ham-handed gaffe.
Now it’s beginning to look as if the party might sack Mrs May. Forty Conservative members of parliament have signed a letter asking her to go. But she won’t. She is no Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher when it comes to political vision, but what she doesn’t lack is tenacity. Journalists recall an occasion when the lights went out while she was holding a press conference during a general election and the room was plunged into darkness. While others scrambled for lights, she just carried on as if nothing had happened. “Next question, please!” she demanded from the invisible rostrum.
Mr Johnson’s fault was to tell a select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 38-year-old ethnic Iranian British subject married to a Briton, who was sentenced to five years in jail for attempting to topple the Iranian regime, was training journalists in Iran. Actually, she was on holiday there with her 22-month-old daughter when the Iranian authorities arrested her in April 2016 as she was about to board a plane back to the UK. Her daughter is now living with her grandparents in Iran.
Apparently, Iranian state TV presented Mr Johnson’s inaccurate comment as a “confession” about the lady’s true motive. It was used as evidence against her on a fresh charge of propaganda against the regime, with Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe now facing jail for a further five years. Mr Johnson’s phone call to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an attempt to clarify that his comments did not, as the Iranian Judiciary High Council for Human Rights suggested, “shed new light” on the case do not seem to have had much effect except to intensify calls at home for his sacking by colleagues who find him arrogant, bombastic and shallow.
The prime minister is a victim of circumstances in this second part of her tenure. To add to her woes, her closest ally, Damian Green, the deputy prime minister, is under investigation by the cabinet secretary for allegedly inappropriate behaviour towards a female journalist and claims that pornography was found on his House of Commons computer. He denies both allegations vehemently.
It all burst out into the open when Jane Merrick, a journalist, described how Sir Michael Fallon had made sexual overtures to her when she was a 29-year-old junior political reporter on the Daily Mail. She claims she “shrank away in horror and ran off to (her) office in the Press Gallery”. Writing in the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, recently, Miss Merrick claimed, “I felt humiliated, ashamed. Was I even guilty that maybe I had led him on in some way by drinking with him? After years of having a drink with so many other MPs who have not acted inappropriately towards me, I now know I was not.”
The revelation was the tipping point for No 10, which appears to have been compiling a list of alleged incidents involving Sir Michael since claims against him were first made by Andrea Leadsom, the minister of state at the department of energy and climate change.
Ms Patel’s exit lacks any of the sexual sensation of the other controversies but is rich in conspiracy theory and political drama. The historical context lends it piquancy. The backdrop was provided by the visit to London of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration whereby Arthur Balfour, a former British prime minister, declared that Britain supported a national homeland for Jews in Palestine. It was a great coup for the Israelis to get a rising ruling party politician who is also an Asian Hindu to express her solidarity with the Zionist caused by not only visiting Israel but meeting a number of Israeli business and political figures there during what was ostensibly a family holiday.
The BBC which broke the story also let it be known that Ms Patel’s mission had not been cleared by either Downing Street or the Foreign Office. It later emerged that after Ms Patel’s visit to Israel she asked her officials to look into whether Britain could support humanitarian operations conducted by the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights area. From Israel, she went on to Uganda on an official trip from which Mrs May summoned her back.
Ms Patel’s friends believe the Foreign Office was behind leaked details of her ill-fated trip to Israel because it wanted to kill off her attempt to change government policy towards Israel. There are hints that Mr Johnson knew of the trip. One unnamed friend is quoted as saying: “She left for Uganda after apologising and being told she was safe. Now they are bowing to pressure.” According to The Daily Telegraph, Ms Patel’s allies have warned that she feels she has been a “scapegoat” for a dysfunctional government. The papers suggested a measure of premeditation by reporting that her return flight from Uganda, landing at Heathrow airport, and then the journey by car to Downing Street where she was sacked were all played out on 24-hour TV news and every social media platform.
The i newspaper predicted that a vulnerable government had been weakened further by the loss of a key Brexit supporter. The Mirror thought the international farce of Ms Patel’s dismissal had made Britain a global laughing stock. The most sombre message came from The Times which led with the headline: “Fears government will collapse as Patel quits”.
That fear persists as scandal dogs Mrs May’s government and the prime minister and her colleagues don’t seem to know whether they are coming or going over the Brexit negotiations.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.