UK political chaos deepens as Patel quits

Priti fly: Patel resigned after taking an eight-hour flight home from Kenya. © Getty

Should our leaders enter politics at a young age or have other jobs first? A senior minister has resigned after a string of big mistakes. Some blame her lack of political experience…

Another week, another minister gone from Theresa May’s besieged government. The latest casualty is Priti Patel, the now-former secretary for international development.

The seeds of Patel’s downfall were planted when she visited Israel in August, supposedly for a holiday. There she met in secret with senior Israeli politicians. She expressed support for Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights region, which the UK does not recognise.

Worse, Patel failed to clear all this first with the prime minister and the Foreign Office, as she should have. After news of the meetings leaked last week, she repeatedly lied to the public about what had happened. Yesterday, May summoned her home from a trip to Kenya and she resigned.

Incredibly, Patel was not the only minister engulfed in a diplomatic row. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, caused outrage by saying that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman imprisoned while on holiday in Iran last year, was in the country to teach journalism. His comments, made in error, could land her another five years in jail.

What is going on?! The journalist Nick Cohen has an answer. “Amateur politicians now rule us,” he writes in The Spectator. “And ... they are a disaster.” Indeed, neither Patel nor Johnson had a top government job until last year. Both entered politics after long stints in other careers: Patel in PR, Johnson in journalism.

They differ from the “professional politicians”: those who have spent most or all of their career in Westminster, working their way up the ladder. These types are increasingly common in Parliament. But they are often seen as out of touch with the world.

The professionalisation of politics has triggered a backlash. The likes of Nigel Farage have built a career on attacking the “Westminster bubble”. MPs have proposed initiatives to encourage working-class people to run for office.

Yet Cohen argues that long experience in politics is important: “Statecraft remains a skill politicians must master if their country is not to suffer.”

Pros and cons

“Cohen is right,” say some. Politicians need specific qualities: caution, confidence, the ability to remember lots of information. What’s more, politics is becoming gradually more technical and difficult. Those who want to govern must practise a lot first. Patel and Johnson have shown what happens when they fail to do so.

“That’s unfair,” reply others. Patel and Johnson have messed up — but then all politicians do, “professional” or otherwise. If anything, those who have experience of the real world are in a better position to govern that world. They also make for a more diverse Parliament, which is a good thing in ordinary people’s eyes.

You Decide

  1. Would you consider a career in politics?
  2. Would the country be better run if all MPs had a decade’s experience in another career?


  1. Write your ideal job on a piece of paper and hand it in to the teacher. Which is the most popular career in the class? Discuss the results.
  2. Write a CV for the ideal 50-year-old MP. Make sure to include their education.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as keeping out of politics.”

George Orwell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In August, Patel met with Israeli officials and politicians (including the prime minister) 12 times. She conducted two more such meetings in September: once in London, once in New York. Patel publicly admitted to having most of these meetings after BBC News leaked the story last Friday; but still she kept some hidden. They were confirmed by her department on Tuesday.
What do we not know?
What May knew when. Initially it appeared that Patel had kept the prime minister, as well as the public, in the dark. But yesterday, The Jewish Chronicle reported that May had asked Patel to keep some details hidden from the public. May’s team has strongly denied this sensational allegation. If it turns out to be true, however, the prime minister will be in serious trouble.

Word Watch

The latest
Last week Sir Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary amid allegations of sexual impropriety.
Secretary for international development
The Department for International Development distributes foreign aid. Some Conservatives see it as a waste of money; Patel herself called for it to be abolished in 2013.
Golan Heights
A mountainous area seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The international community does not recognise its claim to the region. Patel suggested contributing aid to the Israeli military’s humanitarian work in the region.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
The reasons for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest are unclear, but probably related to geopolitics: the UK and Iran have long had a tense relationship. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has worked for media companies, hence Johnson’s mistake.
Increasingly common
Research has also found that “professional politicians” are more likely to be fast-tracked to ministerial roles.
For instance, former Labour MP Denis MacShane proposed that 10% of Parliamentary seats should be reserved for people on the minimum wage.

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