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When the news of Boris Johnson’s and Priti Patel’s diplomatic “indiscretions” broke last week, it was widely assumed that Boris had, again, got himself into the greater difficulty. But, whilst Priti Patel’s Israeli “holiday adventure” lacks the high emotional drama of a British woman facing Iranian jail time, the diplomatic and political consequences of the her actions are far more serious.
For anyone who has worked for the Foreign Office, Priti Patel’s activities will have immediately rung alarm bells – not least because such behavior would be justification for the immediate dismissal of any FCO staff caught undertaking similar “freelance diplomacy”.
First things first, the security implications of a minister secretly “going rogue” are horrendous. To plan and undertake such a mission requires use of one’s own communications – a clear security risk. Such a visit, where the foreign government is aware that a Minister is acting clandestinely, also instantly opens them up to potential blackmail. There’s a reason why diplomatic and overseas governmental visits are planned so strictly to protocol, and that is to avoid the problems of leaving politicians (and civil servants) enmeshed in situations where they can be intimidated or coerced.
What’s more, confidential meetings, particularly in sensitive areas of the Middle East, require FCO and security services to check, sweep and secure the area. Clearly Ms. Patel could not do this, meaning she was going into meetings unprotected and at a distinct disadvantage to her interlocutors.
That Israel is an ally of the UK should not cloud the fact that such behavior by FCO officials would be classified with almost the same degree as seriousness as discovering they are considered useful assets of a foreign government.
Whilst there is no suggestion that Priti Patel was not acting on what she perceived as Britain’s interests, her actions encourage the perception that ministers at the highest level of British government can and will pursue their own foreign policy “off grid” from both the Prime Minister and the foreign office. It’s hard to exaggerate just how damaging that is to the efficacy and credibility of the UK government. For Priti Patel to continue in such a sensitive role as DFID – particularly as she reportedly raised the possibility of UK funneling foreign aid to Israeli army – seems unthinkable.
However, this scandal reaches beyond the DFID secretary’s actions. No. 10 must ensure that any “freelance policy making” is nipped in the bud. Ministers must be made to adhere to protocol, particularly where foreign states in sensitive regions are involved. Failure to do so risks undermining the government at this most sensitive of times, both in terms of Brexit and with regard to the current febrile international environment.
Nick Tolhurst is a writer, lecturer & consultant on international governance and finance in the European banking industry. He was previously employed by the Foreign Office.