Priti Patel is in a pickle. Having been caught holding secret meetings with the Israeli government, it looks like Britain's Brexit-backing International Development Secretary has just resigned.
There is some key context here, though, which is missing from much of the coverage: Patel’s vital role in 'thinktankistan': Britain’s dark-money funded nexus of think tanks, corporate PR, and lobbying. And in particular, the lobbying and business group links relevant to her controversial trip to Israel this summer which led to the downfall of a minister sometimes tipped to be a future prime minister.
What do we know?
First, we know that before being elected an MP in 2010, Patel worked for the PR company Weber Shandwick. Two years ago, Jamie Doward at the Observer revealed that one of her clients in this period was British American Tobacco.
Understandably, the Observer’s coverage of this fact focussed on her work for a company known for its links to the Burmese dictatorship, child labour, and its role in pushing a highly addictive drug which kills millions of people each year. While other Weber Shandwick employees were said to be uncomfortable working for such a controversial firm, the documents the Observer uncovered said that Patel was an exception: “Priti [and another employee] seem quite relaxed working with us”.
However, what’s also vital to understand is that British American Tobacco have long been known to be one of the main funders of Britain’s nexus of right wing, mostly Brexit-backing, think tanks. As the website Tobacco Tactics (a collaboration with Bath University) have revealed by looking through board minutes of major tobacco firms, both the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – perhaps the two most important right-wing ‘think tanks’ in the UK – have received regular funding from British American Tobacco over decades.
Weber Shandwick also does a line in representation of Middle Eastern countries. In 2002, around the time Patel worked for the firm, Weber Shandwick merged with the Israeli PR firm Rimon Cohen. The Tel-Aviv based company’s clients include, as well as the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and the illegal Migron Settlement in the West Bank, none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, with whom Patel met on her controversial trip to Israel this summer.
Weber Shandwick’s clients also include the government of Bahrain – a country which has been widely criticised for its brutal human rights record. Only months after she was first elected an MP, Patel was flown by the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet a number of their ministers.
Her trips to the Gulf don’t stop there. In 2012, funded by the government of the United Arab Emerites, she went on a trip to meet the country's ministers as part of an the All Party Group on the country. In both 2013 and 2014, she returned to the UAE, with all-expenses-paid visits to Dubai, courtesy of two different firms – first, the World Consulting and Research Corporation in New Delhi, who call themselves a ‘brand equity and management organisation’ and, second, by regular donors to her office, Sun Mark Ltd. At the same time as Weber Shandwick merged with Rimon Cohen, it added the Dubai firm Promoseven to its portfolio.
In 2014, the right wing British ‘think tank’, the Henry Jackson Society, paid for Patel to attend a conference in Washington DC organised by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on security in the Middle East. The Henry Jackson Society are so secretive about their funding that they pulled their support for two parliamentary groups rather than reveal where they get their cash from.
The Charity Commission announced earlier this year that it was investigating the Henry Jackson Society amidst allegations that it had been paid by the Japanese government to spread anti-China propaganda.
Minor, and flagrant, abuses
We can now add to this list the trip which has got Patel into the headlines: her ‘family holiday’ to Israel this summer. One of the key details of the whole affair is that the meetings were arranged by Stuart Polak, the honourary president and former director of Conservative Friends of Israel.
In 2009, Peter Oborne wrote a comprehensive report for this website on the extensive power that CFI exerts within the Tory party. It’s worth reading in full. One detail I’d add, after digging through MPs and MSPs registers of interests, is that trips to Israel/Palestine funded by Conservative Friends of Israel and similar groups are by far the most consistent entry in the ‘foreign travel’ section of these records.
Much has been written about the weakness of the current Conservative government, as exhibited by this scandal, Boris Johnson’s blunders, and last week’s resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon amid allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour. But here is the problem. When governments are falling apart, special interest groups run riot. Flagrant abuses usually happen at times when minor abuses are normalised. What other powerful lobby groups are pushing ministers around? How did it get to the point that Patel thought she'd get away with this?