It’s looking increasingly like the ministerial code was made to be broken. Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, is in hot water after her trip to Israel, but Theresa May’s reaction has been to tick her off about her “obligations” to the ministerial code and nothing more.
Patel went to Israel and held a number of meetings with senior figures, including the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was an unofficial trip, a “holiday” that she misled the press about by suggesting the Foreign Office knew about it.
She then issued an astonishing apology – which you can read on the government website – correcting her previous remarks to the Guardian basically line-by-line. It’s an intense, detailed and panicked statement that draws attention to what has clearly been a desperate struggle behind-the-scenes to try and put things right.
Following her talks, Patel asked about sending British aid money to the Israeli army, for funding humanitarian projects in the occupied area of Golan Heights – something she discussed with Israeli officials.
This adds to the charges against Patel – the UK doesn’t recognise Israel’s occupation there, so public money can’t be spent on it. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson was at pains to point that out this afternoon: “There is no change in policy in the area. The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army.”
Even the suggestion of channelling British development spending to Israeli armed forces – which behave brutally in the Palestinian occupied territories – is controversial enough not to trust Patel in such a senior diplomatic role.
The secretary of state also put her own security at risk by making these unofficial visits – which would have gone ahead without government clearance or security.
May reprimanded Patel on Monday morning, and has instructed the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood to have a look at tightening the ministerial code, because it’s not “explicit enough”. But this is a very soft reaction to a big misdemeanour.
In a stronger government, run by a party with a less precarious position in Parliament, a minister would have been sacked for doing this. Particularly a Dfid Secretary under the Tories, who see the post as more of a demotion than a stepping stone (so shuffling someone new into the role wouldn’t cause as much bitterness and outrage as, say, appointing a new Defence Secretary).
But May has so far been powerless to do so, for reasons I report here.
The shadow minister for the Cabinet Office Jon Trickett has written to the Prime Minister urging her to investigate whether Patel broke the ministerial code by holding these meetings. He believes she breached the code’s call for openness, collective responsibility, responsibility to only do duties allocated by the Prime Minister, and honesty. The first three for meeting a foreign leader without permission, and the fourth for misleading the public when asked about it afterwards.
The ministerial code sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers. If the PM believes one of their ministers has broken it, they can refer them to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to investigate.
This basically puts the decision in the hands of the PM, who can therefore decide, if it’s politically problematic, not to instruct the Independent Adviser. The latter cannot act of their own accord. This is one of the ministerial code’s biggest shortcomings. The not “explicit enough” (in Downing Street’s own words) nature of the ministerial code also helps any beleaguered PM, who can hide behind its vagueness.
But putting the details of the code aside, May should be able to sack her own minister for actions that would see even a regular civil servant working at the Foreign Office sacked.