British aid minister Priti Patel was forced to cut short a foreign trip on Wednesday to answer questions over undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials, posing a new test of Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority as she negotiates Brexit.
Weakened by losing her party’s majority in a June election, May faces another crisis after her defense minister resigned in a sexual harassment scandal, leaving the government with “the stench of death” to it, according to an opposition lawmaker.
Patel, a Brexit campaigner who is popular in the governing Conservative Party, was heading back to London after cancelling meetings on a planned trip to Africa to respond to media reports that she failed to declare meetings with Israeli officials in a breach of diplomatic protocol.
Asked whether Patel should be dismissed, the new defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, told reporters in Brussels: “The prime minister makes her own decision on actually who is serving in her cabinet, and they’re only the prime minister’s decisions.”
Under British protocol, a cabinet minister would normally organize meetings through the foreign office and be accompanied by officials, and visits with Israelis would typically be balanced with meetings with Palestinians. Patel was also reported to have visited the Golan Heights, territory disputed between Israel and Syria, which British officials tend to avoid.
Whether Patel is sacked or not, the scandal is the latest to rattle May, who is dependent on the support of a small Northern Irish party in parliament to make laws - increasingly important as Britain navigates its departure from the European Union.
She lost close ally Michael Fallon, her defense secretary, last week, and her deputy Damian Green and another minister are under investigation as part of the sexual harassment scandal in parliament.
On Tuesday, her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was pressed to apologize over remarks he made about a jailed aid worker in Iran, which critics said could prompt Tehran to hand her a longer jail term.
“STENCH OF DEATH”
Opposition lawmakers are openly questioning whether May has the strength to continue as prime minister.
“There are times when a government has the stench of death about it,” Pat McFadden, a lawmaker from the main opposition Labour Party, told parliament on Tuesday.
Patel apologized to May on Monday for failing to report that she had met senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a holiday.
On Wednesday, the Sun newspaper reported that she had also failed to disclose that she had met the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, in New York and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in London.
A government source confirmed those meetings took place.
The source said that no UK government officials were present for the discussions, and they were set up and reported in a way that did not accord with the usual procedures.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper also reported that Patel visited a field hospital of the Israeli Defence Forces in the Golan Heights, seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war.
A spokesman for May denied that the prime minister had been aware of Patel’s meeting with Netanyahu in advance.
“It is not true that the prime minister knew about the International Development Secretary’s meeting with PM Netanyahu before Friday Nov. 3,” the spokesman said.