The Important Questions That Didn't Get Asked in the Priti Patel Scandal
And what we missed when we were following her flight path to get sacked.
Priti Patel (Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images)
The Priti Patel scandal is the kind of thing that gets political journalists very excited. When Patel boarded her plane back to the UK in Nairobi on Wednesday, the story was that of a government minister being called home in disgrace to potentially be sacked for conducting a freelance foreign policy. In the wake of Stephen Pollard’s Jewish Chronicle article alleging that Patel wasn’t merely going it alone, but was actually operating under the orders of Number 10, the ramifications stretched all the way up to "bringing down the government". Heavy stuff.
The social media-led, 24-hour rolling news cycle saw every scrap of information reported on, pertinent or otherwise. Here is the Minister on a plane. The plane has taken off. The plane remains airborne. The plane has landed. Now the Minister is in a car. Here's a view of the car from a helicopter.
This wasn’t a high-speed car chase. The International Development Secretary wasn’t trying to evade capture. We knew where she was going – to prepare for a meeting in the evening with the Prime Minister, where she would probably be asked to resign. We knew that before she got on her plane. None of the news coverage in the interim period between Patel's sudden return trip from Kenya to the announcement of her resignation told us anything we didn't know.
It's probably a lost cause, but I do wonder if it might be better, when there's nothing new to tell us, that the news doesn't keep telling us there's nothing new? It's an important story, I get it, but maybe a couple of minutes of filler here and there could be shaved off to talk about, say, anything else going on in the world?
Two South American countries with Presidents called Morales are facing street demonstrations this week. In Guatemala, protesters are blocking roads demanding that President Jimmy Morales resigns amid a corruption investigation by the UN, while in Bolivia people are on the streets supporting a constitutional amendment allowing Evo Morales to run for President again in 2019. I'm not accusing the British media of totally ignoring these stories: there are reporters doing the work. But as a question of priorities, perhaps the balance could be tilted ever so slightly away from endlessly repeating shots of nothing happening?
Politics as a game of Who's In and Who's Out absolutely captivates two groups of people in the country: MPs themselves, and the journalists who report on them. The shifting balance of power between various internal factions in the Tory Party as a result of some scandal must be fascinating if your job is to be a nerd about intra-parliamentary politics, but is it really the big story here?
Watching the breathless reporting of "will she be allowed to resign or will she be sacked" is quite surreal. It's not as if Patel is going to be put on the dole. We know that "letting her resign" is a euphemism for sacking, but we're somehow talking about it as if there is a mysterious third party in the room who will be taken in by this. It feels a bit like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. "Who are you talking to? There's no one else here."
Why, one might ask, was an ex-lobbyist for a firm with links to Burma, Bahrain and British American Tobacco the Minister for International Development in the first place? The FT has done some reporting on Conservative Friends of Israel, the lobbying group Lord Polak used to run and remains the honorary president of, but little additional analysis seems to be forthcoming.
Was Priti Patel the vendor or the product? Was she trading her own influence to secure a trade win after Brexit, and what was she willing to give away to get that? Or, was Lord Polak simply demonstrating to people that he could get a member of the British cabinet in the same room as them, and what was he getting out of that?
The content of these meetings and the implications for UK foreign policy seem to be of some pertinence here. Alexander Clarkson, lecturer at University College London, tweeted, "Patel's resignation shouldn't deflect from the fact that a senior UK politician signalled to the Israelis that London might tacitly back IDF operations in South Syria. IDF aid in Quneitra is part of a wider Israeli effort to court Syrian militias against Hezbollah and Iranian forces. Patel's actions risk being interpreted as the UK taking sides."
It was also reported this week that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia have jumped almost 500 percent since 2015. Are Israel and Saudi Arabia allies of convenience against Hezbollah and Iran at the moment, and was British support of this ad hoc coalition raised in Patel's secret meetings? Or does Israel see Saudi military action in Yemen as threatening, and was that raised? What is going on here?
I don't think it's too much to ask that we also acknowledge that the fallout of this week will extend quite some distance beyond whether the Brexit faction or the Remain faction will pick up a seat in the cabinet (as it turned out, the Brexit faction). At some point this horrendous, dysfunctional government will end, either because they're voted out or because the "knives out" analogies become all too literal. At that point, we'll have to live with the ongoing effects of their bungling. Surely it makes sense that we look into what those effects might turn out to be?