UK aid minister Patel quits over Israel meetings
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, invoking Article 50 and signalling the United Kingdom's intention to leave the EU, in the cabinet office inside 10 Downing Street on March 28, 2017. Britain is facing a major challenge in Brexit, but May has struggled to keep her ministers in line since losing her Conservative parliamentary majority in a snap election in June, and she heads a government that looks increasingly adrift.
(CHRISTOPHER FURLONG / POOL / AFP)
(AFP) - Britain's overseas aid minister Priti Patel quit on Wednesday over unauthorised meetings in Israel, becoming the latest cabinet member felled by scandals that have rocked Prime Minister Theresa May's government.
"I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation," Patel wrote to May, becoming the second minister to leave the cabinet in one week.
May summoned Patel back from a trip to Africa to explain her talks with Israeli politicians and officials, in which she raised the possibility of Britain diverting aid to the Israeli army.
Patel had apologised on Monday for holding 12 separate meetings -- including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- during a family holiday to Israel in August, without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street in advance.
Patel wrote in her letter that there had been a "number of reports about my actions and I am sorry that these have served as a distraction."
May accepted Patel's resignation, replying in a letter that "the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally."
The departure comes a week after Michael Fallon quit as defence secretary following allegations of sexual harassment.
- Chaotic Cabinet -
Britain is facing a major challenge in Brexit, but May has struggled to keep her ministers in line since losing her Conservative parliamentary majority in a snap election in June, and she heads a government that looks increasingly adrift.
Months of public divisions over the negotiations with the European Union have given way to scandals over foreign affairs and sexual abuse, leading some MPs to call on her to reassert her authority with a long-mooted Cabinet reshuffle.
May's deputy Damian Green is being investigated for allegedly groping a journalist in 2014 -- which he denies -- while a similar probe is under way into the behaviour of junior trade minister Mark Garnier towards his secretary.
And Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been accused of jeopardising the case of a British woman jailed in Iran, after appearing to suggest she was training journalists at the time -- something her family strongly denies.
Speaking shortly after Patel's resignation while on a trip to Washington, DC, Johnson told reporters his Conservative colleague had been "a first class secretary of state."
"It's been a real pleasure working with her and I'm sure she has a great future ahead of her," Johnson added.
Opposition party politicians criticised Patel, and the prime minister.
Kate Osamor, Labour's shadow international development secretary, said May "must get control of her chaotic cabinet and decaying government".
Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson said Patel had "rightly been forced to step down for her cover up."
"This was an appalling error of judgement and is nothing short of a major failure by the British government."
- Funding to Golan Heights -
On Monday, Patel revealed details of her meetings in Israel, which included discussions with non-governmental organisations and businesses.
She said they were arranged by Lord Stuart Polak, honorary president of the lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel.
But it emerged late Tuesday there had been another two unauthorised meetings in September, with Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in London and senior foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York.
During her meetings, Patel discussed the possibility of British aid being used to support medical assistance for Syrian refugees arriving in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Downing Street said.
However, reports suggest that she did not explain to May that this involved supplying funding to the Israeli army, which has helped treat more than 3,100 wounded refugees in Israeli hospitals since 2013.
Britain views the Golan Heights as occupied territory and a minister told MPs on Tuesday that funding the Israeli Defence Forces there was "not appropriate".
A senior Palestinian official on Wednesday condemned the meetings as "scandalous", urging May to take action.
In a further development on Wednesday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Patel visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the government.
The British aid ministry declined to comment on the report.
Patel was a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the EU in last year's referendum.
The daughter of Ugandan Indians, the 45-year-old has been an MP since 2010.
© Agence France-Presse