LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May is being battered by November storms: a go-nowhere negotiation over Britain's departure from the European Union, upstart rivals in her Conservative Party and embarrassing sex scandals swirling around her government. Now she has had to deal with a cabinet minister who held talks with more than a dozen Israeli officials in off-the-books meetings while allegedly on vacation.
As controversies go, the case of Britain's international development secretary, Priti Patel, is an odd one. Some see a mundane reporting error, others an effort to conceal, even deceive.
May ordered Patel to return immediately from an official trip to Uganda on Wednesday. A few hours after arrival, Patel submitted a letter of resignation, apologizing for having become a distraction.
“While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated,” she wrote.
In reply, May wrote in a letter: “Now that further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign.”
Patel was the second cabinet minister to fall in a week’s time, following the resignation of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who was pushed out over allegations of sexual misconduct. On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also faced calls for his resignation after his remarks may have caused harm to a British citizen imprisoned in Tehran.
As Patel's international flight wound its way on Wednesday from Nairobi to London, the BBC regularly posted updates of its progress. At one point, some 22,000 people were tracking the journey on the Flightradar24 app. News photographers staked out her arrival at Heathrow Airport.
British political reporters wrote with confidence that Patel would be fired by May soon after she arrived at the prime minister's 10 Downing Street offices.
One of the top leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party, Jo Swinson, said Patel had "rightly been forced to step down for her coverup of meetings with foreign officials and the inappropriate requests for aid to be sent to the Israeli military in the Golan Heights."
Her wrongdoing? Patel held meetings with a dozen Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, back in August without notifying the British Embassy in Tel Aviv or the Foreign Office in advance. These types of talks are often sensitive and require consultation by Britain’s diplomats.
Patel, 45, concedes she broke protocol. Government secretaries in Britain are sent on missions abroad; they do not freelance their own foreign policy while on vacation with their families.
In a lengthy statement made before her resignation, Patel admitted her mistake. “In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologize for it.”
But as political intrigues go, the real problem is often not the crime but the coverup.
Patel did not reveal her schedule of meetings with Israelis in advance, and she was vague about when Johnson and his deputies were made aware of the talks.
In an interview she gave to the Guardian newspaper, she strongly suggested Johnson knew of her schedule beforehand.
In her statement, Patel explained that her quoted remarks may have given the impression she had informed the foreign secretary about the visit beforehand. She said she “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.”
Patel, who was born in London to a Ugandan-Indian immigrant family, is — or was — a rising star on the right wing of the Conservative Party and a zealous advocate of leaving the E.U. Her political idol is Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 and died in 2013.
Patel said she was investigating ways for Britain to support Israeli efforts to treat Syrians wounded in the civil war. They are taken across the border by army medics serving in the Israel Defense Forces and treated — at Israeli taxpayer expense — in Israeli hospitals.
During her trip in August, the Israeli government invited Patel to visit the Golan Heights, which was captured from neighboring Syria during the 1967 Middle East war and has been settled by Israelis.
Britain, alongside most of the international community, considers the Golan occupied territory. Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will retain full control of the high plateau forever and will never return the region to Syria.
Offering help to the Israeli army along the Syrian border — even for humanitarian aims — was far and away from Patel’s portfolio.
Patel's meetings in Israel were arranged by Tory peer Lord Stuart Polak, the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel. According to news reports, Lord Polak sat in on 11 of the 12 meetings, including the one with Netanyahu.
The Times of London pointed out Lord Polak also serves as chairman of the advisory board of TWC Associates, a strategic consultancy and lobbying group that underscores how "our clients can best be plugged into the political process."
Patel met May on Monday and apologized for the unauthorized talks in August. But it was revealed afterward that her meetings continued in September and included one with Israel’s tough-talking interior minister, Gilad Erdan.
That encounter was not exactly secret, either.
Erdan tweeted a photograph of himself standing beside Patel on the Thames River expressing enthusiasm: "Wonderful meeting my friend Sec. of State Priti @Patel4witham, a woman of great courage and leadership."
Erdan added, "We are taking concrete action to advance UK-Israel development cooperation, & counter attempts to delegitimize Israel in international institutions."