From one crisis to the next, Brexit-torn Britain stumbles

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May got a break of sorts from the sprawling sex and sleaze scandal that has already forced the resignation of a Cabinet minister, but only because her weakened government was embroiled in two new crises.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May got a break of sorts from the sprawling sex and sleaze scandal that has already forced the resignation of a Cabinet minister, but only because her weakened government was embroiled in two new crises.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Britain's embattled Prime Minister Theresa May got a break of sorts from the sprawling sex and sleaze scandal that has already forced the resignation of a Cabinet minister, but only because her weakened government was embroiled in two new crises.

On vacation in Israel, International Development Secretary Priti Patel held 12 secret meetings, one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and discussed sending aid money to the Israeli authorities.

Back at home, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made an incorrect statement that could mean more prison time for a Briton imprisoned in Iran.

In normal times, either scandal might prompt their resignations, as opposition politicians have demanded.

But these are not normal times in Britain, which is negotiating its fast-looming exit from the European Union, or Brexit, a bitterly divisive issue that often appears to have paralysed the government.

Within May's Conservative Party, the internal politics of Brexit overshadow everything, including appointments to a Cabinet constructed carefully to balance supporters and opponents of the withdrawal, which was approved narrowly last year in a bitterly contested referendum.

Hence, a ragged government is "moving from one crisis to the next crisis", in the words of Nicholas Crowson, professor of contemporary British history at the University of Birmingham.

With Brexit now the key dividing line in British politics, he said, management of a Cabinet has become "close to impossible".

Having already lost her Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, and with two other ministers under threat in the sleaze allegations, May has declared Patel's case closed. And on Tuesday (Nov 7), Johnson brushed aside calls for his resignation.

Patel held the meetings in Israel without telling the Foreign Office, a clear breach of protocol. The appointments were set up with the help of Stuart Polak, the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, a lobbying organisation.

Patel also asked officials from her department to examine whether public money could support humanitarian operations by the Israeli Defence Forces in parts of the Golan Heights. As she ought to have predicted, the answer was no, because Britain regards the Golan Heights as occupied territory.

In addition, Patel was forced to issue an embarrassing clarification, walking back the false impression she gave The Guardian that Johnson was aware of her meetings in advance.

The foreign secretary has problems of his own over comments he made when speaking to a parliamentary committee late last month about a British citizen of Iranian descent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is imprisoned in Iran. Johnson described her conviction for sedition as a mockery of justice but also said she had been "simply teaching people journalism".

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five-year prison term on charges of seeking to overthrow the government, claims that her supporters have called absurd.

Days after Johnson's comments, she was taken to a new court hearing, where the minister's statement was cited as evidence that she had been engaged in "propaganda against the regime" a serious offence.

On Tuesday Johnson said that in a phone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, he had expressed concern that his words had been used against Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but was told that was not the case.

"I accept that my remarks could have been clearer," Johnson said. But he declined to apologise and he called on critics to direct their ire at Iran instead.

That failed to satisfy opposition lawmakers, including Ben Bradshaw, who said that if Britain "had a prime minister who wasn't so weak", both of the Cabinet ministers "would have been sacked".

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, told lawmakers that she hoped that "no lasting damage has been done to Nazarin as a result of his blunder".

Johnson was always a controversial choice of foreign secretary, having before his appointment suggested that President Barack Obama had an "ancestral dislike of the British Empire", written a poem insinuating that Turkey's president had sexual relations with a goat and likened the European Union to the Third Reich.

Patel's appointment raised eyebrows, too, because she told The Daily Telegraph in 2013 that the department she now runs should be scrapped and replaced with a trade-focused body to help businesses invest in the developing world.

Yet, Johnson and Patel were leading campaigners for Brexit in the referendum, and May therefore found them Cabinet jobs , a big one in the case of Johnson, one of the public faces of the campaign to leave the EU.

The resignation from the defence post by Fallon, a "remain" supporter in the referendum, seems to have been prompted in part by complaints from a Brexit-enthusiast, Andrea Leadsom, who is the leader of the House of Commons.

When Fallon stood down last week, the internal balance of the Cabinet meant that he had to be replaced by someone who " like him" was loyal to May and who had campaigned for remain during the referendum.

May opted to promote the chief whip, Gavin Williamson, a decision that provoked fierce complaints that such a senior position had gone to someone with no experience of a big government department or knowledge of the military.

Perhaps the only consolation for May is that, at a time when her leadership is under continual threat, several potential successors are "for now at least" out of the picture. Fallon had been talked of a potential caretaker leader, while Johnson's latest misstep error has focused attention on his competence.

On Tuesday one lawmaker, Anna Soubry, wrote on Twitter that Johnson's lack of contrition is as shameful as the original error¡± over Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She said "Boris Johnson doesn't understand magnitude of the job & responsibility he holds".

And Soubry is a fellow Conservative.