The government is plagued by scandals. Last week saw off loyal Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon, who stepped down over sexual harassment allegations. The Prime Minister's number two Damian Green is under investigation, also for sexual harassment related allegations. Boris Johnson is currently mired in criticism after flippant comments he made have placed a British citizen's future in peril. Now, Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel may be the second minister to fall in just a week.
A scandal involving Patel erupted when BBC journalists exposed a series of undisclosed meetings Patel had in Israel with Israeli politicians, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She also visited Israeli military hospitals in the Golan Heights, which is against diplomatic protocol. British diplomats were not informed, and Patel was not accompanied by any civil servants, as per the norm. Instead, She was accompanied by a high profile Conservative Party campaigner and lobbyist Lord Stuart Polak, who organised the meetings. Polak is honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, as well as being chairman of the advisory board of lobbying firm TWC associates, and was given a life peerage by David Cameron in 2015. Patel then went on to claim in a press release that this trip was nothing more than “a family holiday paid for by myself,” despite later admitting she commissioned work on these trips.
When it comes to Patel’s wrongdoings, for any outsider this is likely to be very clear cut issue: a minister has conducted rogue meetings with a foreign government, side-stepped protocol - something which she admits doing - and lied about it. In any other job, this would be unacceptable.
Many will be asking how Patel could have clung on to her job after the scandal erupted. But like so many other facets of the UK’s often archaic political system, the weakness of the ministerial code of conduct, and the inability of the public and MPs to hold the government and ministers to account, has played to her benefit. Downing Street has said it is not clear whether Patel breached the ministerial code of conduct, and has committed to strengthening it as result. Foolhardy would be those assuming that any ministerial code of conduct worth its salt would explicitly ban ministers from conducting freelance foreign policy.
The problem with Downing Street’s vague promise to strengthen the code is that investigations into breaching the code can still only be triggered by the Prime Minister. This means the accountability of ministers remains very much a political matter. Yes, the ministerial code needs reform, and this is something Unlock Democracy has been campaigning on for years. But even if the code is changed, the power is still left in the hands of the Prime Minister, whose vested interest will usually be in maintaining the facade of a strong and stable government - which is immediately undercut if they place their own ministers under investigation.
Beyond a potential breach of code of conduct, it’s not exactly clear what the disciplinary sanctions are. In recent weeks and in light of sexual harassment allegations, we’ve seen some MPs lose the whip, while others haven’t. There’s no clear criteria for how ministers and MPs alike are being held to account for their behaviour. Constituents certainly can’t, with only a very limited right to recall.
Patel has a track record of operating behind closed doors. She is a member of the influential European Research Group, a group of Conservative MPs that has been accused of using taxpayer cash to fund their political activities. Even before she entered politics Patel was a fully fledged member of the lobbying establishment, working for Weber Shandwick where one of her clients was British American Tobacco.
Being in government matters. The actions of ministers have real world implications for the everyday lives for the people of the UK. Governments and individual ministers need to be held to account. Instead, we’ve seen dawdling from Downing Street and vague commitments to reform the ministerial code of conduct. This is nothing more than sticking a plaster over a gaping wound. The collateral damage in these scandals is public trust in politics, but the government’s priority seems to be saving it’s own skin.