A Government Bankrupt at Home and Abroad
Lindsey German: A duplicitous Foreign Office team is representative of a government which is falling apart
A major boast of the Tories during the last election was that they could be trusted with questions of foreign policy. Yet the past week has seen Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resign in disgrace over accusations of sexual harassment, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson carelessly make reference to a woman imprisoned in Iran - which may lead her suffering more punishment as a result - and International Development Secretary Priti Patel caught using a holiday in Israel to engage in meetings with the government including the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, where she pushed her own lobbying agenda without any reference either to the British embassy or to the Foreign Office.
The facts had to be dragged out of her. She has pretended all along this was just a holiday interrupted by a couple of meetings. She repeatedly stated this and told reporters that the Foreign Secretary was informed about the trip before it happened, something he was rapid to deny. In fact, she later told The Guardian she had held twelve such meetings, accompanied by her Tory colleague, including one with the head of government, two other senior politicians and ten representatives of Israeli organisations. She was accompanied by Lord Polak, honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, which is a lobbying organisation.
There are major protocols against this sort of thing in government, for obvious reasons. It is expected that communications between government representatives should not be freelance operations for fear of misunderstandings and worse. Patel and all ministers are well aware of such protocols. The amazing thing is that she has not yet been sacked. Indeed, in normal political times the actions of Patel and Johnson might be enough to have shown them the exit door, along with Fallon.
But these are not normal times, and Theresa May’s government is so fragile that any upset has to be avoided. The departure of any government minister is too likely to bring the whole fragile infrastructure to total collapse for it to be countenanced except where there really is no alternative.
This leaves a number of questions to be answered about those responsible for foreign policy. The actions of both Patel and Johnson are inflammatory in a situation of great danger in the Middle East. The defeat of Isis in Syria and Iraq is leading to a repositioning of politics. The internecine warfare in the Saudi royal family is one instance of this. Another is the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister citing fear of Iran earlier this week. A third is the ramping up of opposition to Iran from Donald Trump and his close ally, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who used his London visit over Balfour last week to insist that there has to be a more aggressive policy towards Iran.
These ministers have shown themselves to be either incompetent, in which case they should go, or duplicitous, in which case they should also go. Their actions raise wider questions, particularly in the case of Patel. She and her government work very closely with the Israeli government, broadly accept its treatment of the Palestinians and were happy to support the celebration of the Balfour declaration. Britain does not differ in fundamentals with the Israeli government over its approach to policy. Indeed, one of the most shocking revelations about Patel is that she wanted some of the British aid allocation to go to the Israeli military, for ‘humanitarian aid’ in the occupied Golan Heights. Patel and Polak discussed a range of issues including anti-Semitism in British politics, and prospects for partnership work. Why did these meetings happen, why were they secret and what were the British politicians trying to achieve? There have been no answers to these questions.
A government bankrupt domestically is also bankrupt internationally. Its ministers still pretend that they have an important role in the world, but this increasingly depends on agreeing to the warmongering and aggressive policies of Trump, and on being a major seller of arms around the world. It is a government whose time is long past.