The British government is currently experiencing some, ahem, internal turbulence.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, told a parliamentary committee last week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British woman currently in jail in Tehran accused of being a British spy, had been “simply teaching people journalism”.
This totally undercut her defence that she had merely been in Iran on holiday, and added fuel to the Iranians’ charge that she had been running a journalism course aimed at spreading anti-Iran propaganda. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was promptly dragged back to court where Johnson’s remarks were cited as proof of the Iranian charge, leading to fears her sentence could be doubled.
The family is understandably utterly distraught about Boris’s words. Extraordinarily, the FCO dragged its feet over undoing the damage he had done. It claimed first that his words had been taken out of context; eventually Boris said he “could have been clearer” and that it was clear Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in Iran on holiday.
The only thing more astounding than a Foreign Secretary behaving in this utterly appalling way is that he still remains Foreign Secretary.
By contrast, Priti Patel was forced to resign this week as International Development Secretary in the uproar following the disclosure that she had a number of official meetings in Israel while on holiday there last August, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu, without telling the Foreign Office in advance.
The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, it was said, didn’t learn about the Netanyahu meeting until after she herself met him in London last week. In addition, Patel was trying secretly to channel humanitarian aid to the IDF field hospital in Syria which is treating casualties of the Syrian bloodbath.
It was said she had broken the ministerial code requiring her to have told the government in advance about her planned meetings in Israel. It was further claimed that the Prime Minister finally sacked her because, when the balloon first went up about her trip and Mrs May hauled her in for a dressing-down, Patel failed to tell the Prime Minister about two further meetings with Israeli officials additional to the 12 she had previously listed.
There is much more to this affair than we have been told and with many unanswered questions. I was personally told by a well-informed source that the Foreign Office was made aware of the Patel/Netanyahu meeting by the very evening of that day, that the case against her was based on lies, and that Patel was made to write the strange “mea culpa” in which she admitted her previous statements about her visit had been false only because 10 Downing Street was pointing a metaphorical gun to her head.
These points were further amplified and developed in a Jewish Chronicle scoop by its editor, Stephen Pollard. This not only provided details of the Foreign Office’s same-day knowledge of the Netanyahu meeting. It also claimed explosively that Patel did disclose one of the two “further” meetings with Israel’s foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York last September – but she had been instructed by Number 10 not to include it in her list as it would embarrass the Foreign Office.
Number 10 has flatly denied the JC story, but Pollard, who says he had two sources, is firmly sticking by it. In addition, Pollard has also noted a puzzling feature of the claim that number 10 had only now found out about Patel’s plan to funnel British aid money to the Israelis for the Syrian field hospital. He wrote that, well before the Patel story broke,
“…I was told very matter of factly that there would soon be an announcement of cooperation between the UK and Israel over aid in Africa – that we would divert some of our aid money to the Israelis to fund some of their aid work there. I was told that it had been signed off between DfID and Number Ten, but that the FCO had kicked off because it felt its toes were being trodden on”.
There are clear signs that this furore owes much if not all of its genesis to a fight between the the passionately pro-Israel Priti Patel and the Foreign Office with its pronounced anti-Israel agenda. Today’s Times (£) runs a story reporting claims by Patel’s allies that they see the fingerprints of the pro-Palestinian Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan all over the BBC report that detonated the affair, an allegation which “friends” of Sir Alan have denied.
Needless to say, the Israel-baiters in the media have been having a field day, with some twisted coverage in the Guardian as reported here.
There is, however, a far darker aspect of the Patel imbroglio. This is the imputation that Jewish power is being deployed in covert ways by powerful Jews suborning British foreign policy to advance the interests of the State of Israel.
This appalling canard has been reactivated yet again as a result of the involvement in the affair of Lord Polak, honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobby group, who helped organise Patel’s meetings with Israelis and sat in on most of them.
Unknown sources have been out in force telling the media that CFI is uniquely powerful and that Polak, a Tory party donor, should be exiled from the party for “suborning” foreign policy. The original BBC story quoted a minister saying of Patel: “She is a cabinet minister. She just cannot do this. This is about donors and influence.”
CFI is effective but certainly not all-powerful: Britain’s ambivalent attitude toward Israel is testimony to its lack of power. This affair has merely provided yet another pretext, in the already deeply worrying climate of antisemitism in Britain, for another bout of unhinged anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.
Various commentators have now voiced the impression that Priti Patel has been made some kind of scapegoat. We may never know the truth of this affair, since if it were to be shown that the Foreign Office or Number Ten have lied this could finally bring the already fragile May administration down.
This is an outcome even her enemies don’t want, since the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn taking power is so terrifying it is regarded as an eventuality to be avoided at all costs. This, together with the fact that the Conservative party can’t coalesce around any alternative candidate, is what is keeping Mrs May in office.
This perception of terminal government weakness is disastrous for British interests in the current Brexit negotiations with the EU. What the country needs at this time is an unflinching message of British strength and confidence in its independent future. A combination of Michael Gove as Prime Minister and Jacob Rees-Mogg as Brexit Secretary would do the trick.
Care to place a bet on that? Ok, thought not.
There’s a real feeling at present of everything coming apart at the seams. The surreal departure from reality by those opposed to Brexit and who are determined to reverse the EU referendum result is a graphic example. Brexit, however, is merely a symptom rather than the cause.
Other symptoms of the mass derangement are the tsunami of sexual misbehaviour claims by people for whom sexual licence is an article of faith, and the attacks on free speech and dissenters from progressive orthodoxy by those who claim to be anti-fascist.
What we are seeing is an eruption of elemental forces in a civilisational conflict.
The Conservative party is not in crisis because Mrs May is weak. My own view has always been that Mrs May was a disaster as Home Secretary, she should never have been elected leader, she should have resigned after her general election debacle and she should be removed now. But Mrs May is not the source of the problem.
She only became Conservative leader because the party itself had become a battleground of warring perspectives. Conservatism not longer knows what it is, what it’s for and what it should be against. That in turn is because western civilisation itself has slipped its moorings. And don’t get me started on what’s going on across the pond.
But all this is a rather bigger story, and one to which I will doubtless have future cause to return. Many times.