‘From One Crisis to the Next’: Brexit-Torn Britain Stumbles

‘From One Crisis to the Next’: Brexit-Torn Britain Stumbles


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 defense secretary, Michael Fallon, and with two other ministers under threat in the sleaze allegations, Mrs. May has declared Ms. Patel’s case closed. And on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson brushed aside calls for his resignation.

Ms. 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 organization.

Ms. Patel also asked officials from her department to examine whether public money could support humanitarian operations by the Israeli Defense 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, Ms. Patel was forced to issue an embarrassing clarification, walking back the false impression she gave The Guardian that Mr. 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. Mr. Johnson described her conviction for sedition as a mockery of justice but also said she had been “simply teaching people journalism.”

Photo

Britain’s international development secretary, Priti Patel, held 12 secret meetings in Israel without notifying the Foreign Office, then gave the false impression to a newspaper that she had.

Credit
Peter Nicholls/Reuters

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

On Tuesday Mr. 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 Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but was told that was not the case.

“I accept that my remarks could have been clearer,” Mr. Johnson said. But he declined to apologize 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.”

Mr. 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.

Ms. 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, Mr. Johnson and Ms. Patel were leading campaigners for Brexit in the referendum, and Mrs. May therefore found them cabinet jobs — a big one in the case of Mr. Johnson, one of the public faces of the campaign to leave the European Union.

The resignation from the defense post by Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mrs. May and who had campaigned for remain during the referendum. Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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. Mr. Fallon had been talked of a potential caretaker leader, while Mr. Johnson’s latest misstep error has focused attention on his competence.

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

And Ms. Soubry is a fellow Conservative.





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