Where to start with the Priti Patel case?
The secretary for international development has created a media storm of such epic proportions that it has clouded out all the other competing scandals within Theresa May’s cabinet (more on them later).
To recap, it transpired last week that Patel had held undisclosed meetings with key Israeli officials, while on holiday over the summer.
On Monday, it turned out that these officials had included the Israeli Prime Minister. Foreign policy had been discussed, such as sending British overseas aid to the Israeli Defence Force for their work with Syrian refugees.
Press releases have been hurled about arguing over who knew what when. Patel first claimed the Foreign Office had been informed of her meetings in advance, then backtracked, while Downing Street maintained that the Prime Minister had no knowledge of any of this.
Then came conflicting reports that May’s office had in fact known about at least some of the meetings and pressured Patel into not disclosing everything to save the Foreign Office embarrassment.
Number 10 denied this.
Speculation about Patel’s inevitable dismissal reached a fever pitch on Wednesday, not helped by the fact that she spent most of the day on a plane back from Uganda. Reporters camped out at the airport to meet her, while tens of thousands of people tracked her flight online in a state of frenzy. She headed straight for Downing Street on arrival, and promptly resigned.
If it turns out Patel was being scapegoated by Number 10 all along, that will be a disgrace of unprecedented proportions, but even giving May the benefit of the doubt, the situation looks dire.
The Tories have barely recovered from the last cabinet resignation. Michael Fallon was the one stepping down last Wednesday, amid allegations of sexual harassment – only to be replaced by chief whip Gavin Williamson (with his pet tarantula). This proved highly unpopular among Conservative MPs.
And Patel may not be the last to go. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has enjoyed a reputation for being teflon-coated, despite numerous legendary gaffes. But this time he may have gone too far, with a careless error made in front of the select committee that could see a British woman spend an extra five years in a Middle Eastern prison, unless he can convince the Iranian government that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
When called in front of parliament to account for this blunder, Johnson could have escaped with his honour intact by acknowledging his mistake and apologising unequivocally. Instead, he dodged any sense of responsibility for potentially doubling an innocent woman’s jail sentence.
Then there’s the thorny issue of the Brexit department’s 58 sectoral impact studies on leaving the EU that were due to be handed to MPs on Tuesday. Government officials are now claiming that they may not exist in quite as coherent a form as first implied.
Unfortunately for the government, the Brexit secretary himself confirmed their existence last month. Westminster now waits to see what may emerge when the documents are released in a few weeks’ time.
In normal political times Johnson would be out, and the Brexit department would get a stern scolding. But instead we have a Prime Minister who, in moments of stress, freezes like a rabbit in the headlights. There’s been dithering all week since word got out of Patel’s secret meetings.
Part of this is surely May’s inflexibility and indecisiveness under pressure. But her hands are also tied. Cabinet ministers must be replaced, and hanging over parliament at the moment is the anonymous spreadsheet full of unconfirmed accusations of improper conduct. If May promotes someone, only for past sexual harassment allegations to emerge, her government is finished.
Perhaps it is finished already, at least in the sense that no actual governing is being done.
Take David Davis and the Brexit studies row. The whole reason for the Tuesday deadline was a vote that the government lost last week on publishing its Brexit analyses. At the time, no Conservative MPs voted against, as it was not clear whether or not the vote was binding. Turns out it was, hence the panic from Davis to deny that the assessments had ever been made.
But only a government at its very weakest would try to ignore such a vote – even if it hadn’t been binding, it makes May look ineffectual and incompetent. So does Labour’s non-binding win (299 to zero) to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit last month.
Clearly the Tories’ “confidence and supply” deal with the DUP is not inspiring much confidence – not the kind that wins votes, anyway. How they can hope to pass a Budget that contains anything substantial in two weeks’ time remains a mystery.
The Conservatives’ key message in the election campaign was that a government led by May would be “strong and stable”, whereas one led by Corbyn would be chaotic and incompetent. This argument is not looking robust.
Of course, the opposition isn’t doing much better – Corbyn has just hired a woman convicted of voter fraud, and Labour has its own sexual harassment scandals.
But it’s hard to see how May’s government recovers, when the question of the week is how many cabinet ministers will make it to Friday.