Britain’s overseas aid minister Priti Patel quit on Wednesday (8) over unauthorised meetings in Israel, becoming the latest cabinet member caught up in a whirlwind of scandals rocking prime minister Theresa May’s government.
“I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation,” Patel wrote in a letter to May, becoming the second minister to leave the cabinet in one week.
May summoned Patel back from a trip to Africa to explain her talks with Israeli politicians and officials, in which she reportedly raised the possibility of Britain diverting aid to the Israeli army.
Patel had apologised on Monday for holding 12 separate meetings — including with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — during a family holiday to Israel in August, without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street in advance.
Patel wrote in her letter that there had been a “number of reports about my actions and I am sorry that these have served as a distraction.”
May accepted Patel’s resignation, replying in a letter that “the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally.”
The departure comes a week after Michael Fallon quit as defence secretary following allegations of sexual harassment.
Britain is facing a major challenge in Brexit, but May has struggled to keep her ministers in line since losing her Conservative parliamentary majority in a snap election in June.
Months of public divisions over the negotiations with the European Union have in recent days given way to scandals over foreign affairs and sexual abuse.
May’s deputy Damian Green is being investigated for allegedly groping a journalist in 2014 — which he denies — while a similar probe is under way into the behaviour of junior trade minister Mark Garnier towards his secretary.
Meanwhile, foreign secretary Boris Johnson has been accused of jeopardising the case of a British woman jailed in Iran, after appearing to suggest she was training journalists at the time — something her family strongly denies.
May put off a mooted reshuffle after her election setback, but some MPs have called on her to act to assert her power over a government that looks increasingly adrift.
Opposition party politicians welcomed Patel’s departure.
Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson said she had “rightly been forced to step down for her cover up.”
“This was an appalling error of judgement and is nothing short of a major failure by the British government,” she added.
On Monday, Patel revealed details of her meetings in Israel, which included discussions with non-governmental organisations and businesses.
She said they were arranged by Lord Stuart Polak, honorary president of the lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel.
But it emerged late Tuesday there had been another two unauthorised meetings in September, with Israel’s public security Minister Gilad Erdan in London and senior foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York.
During her meetings, Patel discussed the possibility of British aid being used to support medical assistance for Syrian refugees arriving in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Downing Street said.
However, reports suggest that she did not explain to May that this involved supplying funding to the Israeli army, which has facilitated the treatment of more than 3,100 wounded refugees in Israeli hospitals since 2013.
Britain views the Golan Heights as occupied territory and a minister told MPs on Tuesday that funding the Israeli Defence Forces there was “not appropriate”.
A senior Palestinian official on Wednesday condemned the meetings as “scandalous”, urging May to take action.
“I think it is scandalous and that leads me to question how many more cases, not just in Britain but other places, have not been exposed,” Hanan Ashrawi said.
In a further development on Wednesday, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Patel visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the government.
Patel’s ministry declined to comment on the report.
Patel was a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the EU in last year’s referendum, and is a prominent figure in May’s cabinet.
The daughter of Ugandan Indians, the 45-year-old has been an MP since 2010, and is widely believed to have ambitions on Downing Street.
On Monday, she had apologised that her “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”.