Priti Patel: When holidays go wrong
Priti Patel - image credit: PA
Most family holidays don’t tend to involve protracted negotiations with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).
That’s the first thing that strikes you in reading the Priti Patel story. For anyone who hasn’t been up on this, the international development secretary has been forced to apologise after holding 12 secret meetings, while on a private holiday in the Middle East.
And the story raises all sorts of questions, not least over what sort of holiday Patel had organised.
After all, lots of people struggle to switch off from work on holiday, but there’s a significant difference between fighting the urge to check your emails and finding yourself in high level covert meetings with a foreign power.
In fact it would usually be a sign that things have taken an ugly turn. As a rule there’s almost a direct relationship between how badly your holiday is going and the amount of time you find yourself spending in negotiations with the Israeli military.
But then it’s hard to find a break that pleases the whole family. Some want the beach. Some want a pool. Others want to hold lengthy talks on the premise of sending taxpayers’ money to a foreign army.
And that’s where things start to get really interesting, because, according to the BBC, Patel wasn’t just holding informal meetings with the Israeli government, she was suggesting the idea of handing over some of Britain's aid budget to the IDF.
So why was Patel holding secret meetings with the aim of funnelling public money to a foreign power’s military? Some called it a mistake, which is certainly a nicer word than treason. But actually the best explanation came from Patel’s department.
Initially she had told the Guardian “Boris knew about the visit”. She said: “The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip].”
Unfortunately for Patel, it then emerged that Boris Johnson didn’t know about the trip.
Clarifying, DfID said that her quote “may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance.”
Patel saying Boris Johnson knew about the trip may have given the impression he knew about the trip? Yes, it’s probably fair to say it does give that impression.
But, nope, that wasn’t what happened. DfID’s statement continues: “The Secretary of State would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The Foreign Secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
He became aware of the trip, but not in advance of it.
You’ve got to hand it to Patel, this started off as a question of ministerial accountability but it had quickly escalated into a philosophical exercise in epistemology. Can you be said to know about something happening if you don’t know about it while it is happening?
Learning about something after it happens to you is sort of the definition of a surprise, after all. A tree falling in the woods may well make a sound, but under Patel’s logic you could argue you had known it was going to fall because it had already fallen on you.
But it didn’t end there, with DfID then forced to clarify that, despite Patel claiming, “The stuff that is out there is it, as far as I am concerned”, the stuff that was out there was not entirely it.
In fact, despite stating she had been to two secret meetings, she had actually been to 12. So what were these meetings? Probably small ones, not worth mentioning. Well, one was with the Israeli prime minister. Most people would probably remember that happening on their family holiday, but then, as we have established, most people have different ideas about what constitutes a family holiday.
So why did Patel suggest Johnson knew, when he didn’t? And why did she suggest two meetings took place, when it was actually 12? Patel put it down to a “lack of precision” in her response – which is probably the least precise use of the word precise in recorded history.
But there’s no sense in getting distracted. The key question now is over what comes next.
After all, who knows where this could lead? Up till now Tory infighting has been largely confined to Westminster. It may occasionally have spread onto newspaper front pages, but how long till it spills out into the Middle East?
If the Cold War taught us anything it’s that these proxy wars tend to escalate. We know the Tories have not been getting on brilliantly, and we know Patel has been making overtures to the IDF – so how long till Liam Fox, feeling threatened, responds by reaching out to Hezbollah or Hamas? It may sound outlandish, but then so does the idea of holding a referendum on EU membership as a means of healing internal Tory rifts. Look where that got us.
But still, whether there will be any real consequences for Patel remains unclear, given how hard it seems to be to get sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet. Sure, pressure will grow for a day or so, and that’s without any more revelations emerging, but given the way news cycles have been working, something else is bound to come up to distract.
Until then, Patel should just lie low. Maybe take a holiday.