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It’s time UK ministers learn: Foreign policy conventions are matters of national security

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to the nation outside Downing Street on 18 April 2017 in London, United Kingdom [Kate Green/Anadolu Agency]

Former International Development Secretary and lobbyist Priti Patel’s scandal has echoes from the past.

Rather than learning those lessons – the Conservative party appears to have laid the groundwork for her louche approach to the importance of diplomacy being run by the government, not some freelance political hack.

As many readers will know, the popular Google Chrome browser allows a myriad of customisation options – everything from integrating popular messaging apps to blocking annoying adverts. Arguably the most niche yet brilliant of these “plug-ins” is the “Liam Foxinator”.

Install this nifty piece of software and it will read every page you read, look out for mentions of “Liam Fox” and seamlessly replace that moniker with “Disgraced Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox”.

Read: BBC journalist deletes tweet about UK’s ‘corrupt’ relationship with Israel

Fox, or “The Good Doctor” as some of his Westminster acolytes nickname him, infamously travelled the world with his close friend Adam Werrity, passing him off as an official adviser. He too conducted a parallel and unauthorised foreign policy, with Israel, that ran contrary to British interests and instructions being received from the Foreign Office.

Paid for by severely shady lobbying agencies, like G3, and transatlantic lobbying groups, like Atlantic Bridge, nobody was quite sure what to make of it, except that Fox should be fired. Then he re-appeared in government. He is now International Trade Secretary, arguably the least appropriate position possible for a chap with his history – short of appointing him ambassador to Jerusalem.

What Patel was doing in Israel was just as awful. She was not just taking a view on where British taxpayer money should be spent.

She was putting national security at risk. As Nick Tolhurst, a former Foreign Office official has put it publicly: “She has to be considered security risk & thus cannot be Prime Minister, Foreign Minister or Defence Minister in future.” He explains that “to undertake a planned secret meeting in a foreign country without prior approval from the Foreign Office” would present “a clear security risk”, mainly because arrangements for such a meeting would not have been done in a secure way. He warns that such a visit “instantly opens up ministers to blackmail not just because of her secret behaviour but because she could not use UK security….all Foreign Office visits depend on securing/sweeping.” He concludes that “she was thus vulnerable to pressure/blackmail”.

None of this security context should have been a surprise. As then cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell had earlier found, Fox had done similar; his report into the Fox-Werrity affair concluded: “The disclosure outside the Ministry of Defence of details about future visits overseas posed a degree of security risk not only to Dr Fox, but also to the accompanying official party.”

Read: Patel-Israel scandal grows as May tries to weather the storm

The timing of her visit was also tactless. It is broadly clear that Theresa May and the Foreign Office have managed to bungle the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration completely. They did this by managing to offend just as many British Muslims as British Jews (or those that still show an interest in the conflict), and just as many pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis. Enter the clumsy Patel, whose skillset as a media provocateur makes for entertaining Sunday newspapers but less so diplomatic finesse.

She does have form on these kinds of jaunts. One lesser known role she has played in the Conservative Party is acting as a bridge between Narinder Modi in India and first David Cameron and then Theresa May, both of whom have been keen to hoover up the Hindu vote (often at the expense of Muslims).

Perhaps Patel has seen an opportunity in the indelicate way the Balfour Declaration has been handled by the present government, to politicise the event to her advantage. Her travelling with a political lobbyist for the pro-Israel camp suggests she understands the value of having powerful lobbyists like Conservative Friends of Israel behind her career. There is no doubt she also has her eye on the full premiership of the Conservative party – although this now looks increasingly unlikely, and CFI may be embarrassed to have associated with her. There is equally no doubt many prominent pro-Israel voices in Britain were irritated by the way the Tories refused to give full-throated backing to the celebrations.

Regardless of the vulgar nature of religious politics in Britain today (and it should always be stressed that “Jewish votes” are not equal to “pro-Israel votes”, even if some on the pro-Palestinian side don’t appreciate this, to the benefit of the pro-Israel lobby), the Patel affair should have never happened. It is no surprise it has. The Fox-Werrity scandal had no meaningful consequences for Fox – he was able to bid for the leadership himself and now enjoys one of the top jobs in Cabinet. Parties teaching their ministers, Conservative or Labour, that foreign policy conventions aren’t just diplomatic niceties, but matters of national security, is key.

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