Editor’s Note, Nov. 9: After publication of this story, Penny Mordaunt was confirmed as the new secretary of state for international development. Follow Devex’s coverage of the department’s new leadership as it comes in.
LONDON — Speculation over who will take over the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and what this could mean for the future of U.K. aid is rife as the aid community comes to terms with the shock departure of Priti Patel as secretary of state for international development.
Patel, who had held the post since July 2016, was forced to resign on Wednesday evening following revelations she may have breached the ministerial code of conduct by holding unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials during a holiday to the country in August. She subsequently asked DFID staff to explore cooperation with the Israeli aid agency and army, as the BBC reported.
The former minister and MP for Witham offered her resignation to Prime Minister Theresa May in London after being called back from Kenya, where she had just flown out for an official visit to Uganda and Ethiopia.
“It has been a privilege to preside over a Department which has a team of remarkable individuals who often face adversity and danger in tough and challenging circumstances,” Patel wrote in her resignation letter to the prime minister on Wednesday night. “Seeing how the aid and support provided by this country is transforming and saving lives is truly remarkable.”
Of her meetings in Israel, Patel said they “were meant with the best of intentions,” but acknowledges in the letter that they “fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated,” offering her resignation as a result.
Patel was often unpopular within the aid industry, insiders said, especially due to comments she made about abolishing the department before she was appointed as secretary of state. Some said she “would not be missed.”
However, they also raised concerns about the potential impact that the scandal surrounding her departure could have on the future of DFID’s independence as a department and its budget — both of which have been under threat in recent years.
“Agenda 2030 calls for us to ‘leave noone behind’..and this requires thought and planning...and strategic interventions,” Dodd said.
Furthermore, questions remain over whether and how much Theresa May and other cabinet ministers knew about Patel’s meetings in Israel after the Jewish Chronicle newspaper reported that the prime minister not only knew about Patel’s meetings with Israeli officials, but told her to keep them a secret — something that Downing Street has denied.
In a statement sent to the press, Kate Osamor, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, said “we still need to know what was discussed in these meetings, and what Number 10 and the Foreign Office knew and when.”
A source close to Osamor added that it is “crucial that the next secretary of state should be someone capable both of protecting 0.7 percent and DFID's independence, and also restoring integrity and purpose to British international development policy.”
Several major London-based NGOs have told Devex they are expecting Patel’s replacement to be announced on Thursday. While there are a number of strong candidates, industry insiders say it is hard to know who May will pick, considering her surprise decision to replace Sir Michael Fallon as defence secretary with Gavin Williamson last week.
On Thursday morning, speculation was rising that the incumbent minister for work and pensions, Penny Mordaunt, would be offered the post. While the Portsmouth North MP does not have much development experience, she is a relatively young, female, pro-Brexit minister who could help maintain a political balance within May’s cabinet.
Two obvious choices would also be Alistair Burt and Rory Stewart, junior ministers who hold joint positions across DFID and the Foreign Office. Stewart, a former soldier and Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, is thought to have been angling for the position, tweeting a number of videos and messages praising DFID’s work before and after Patel’s resignation became official.
However, Stewart’s hopes may be compromised by his inclusion on a dossier detailing alleged sexual harassment by Conservative MPs, which has been circulating in Westminster. Stewart has denied any wrongdoing and the woman he is alleged to have harassed has also disputed the allegation, saying Stewart was “never anything other than completely professional and an excellent employer.”
Burt is a veteran minister and was called upon to answer questions about Patel’s Israel trip in the House of Commons on Tuesday, while Patel was flying to Kenya. He could be seen as a safe pair of hands to take over as secretary of state, but could also be regarded as too close to the Israeli scandal.
Other names being floated include Alan Duncan, currently deputy foreign minister and formerly a DFID junior minister; and even former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell.
Calls for strong leadership
Finding a “good” replacement, and someone who can hit the ground running, will be key to minimizing any reputational damage caused to DFID by the Patel scandal, according to Amy Dodd, director of the U.K. Aid Network. Dodd also said the decision needs to be made fast as there is a “lot going on” in the development sector such as changes to the rules surrounding official development assistance, which continued at last month’s high-level meeting of the Development Assistance Committee at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“It’s a really important time in development,” she said, adding that “we are a couple of years into the SDGs and so this is where [we] need to be getting into the actual implementation … of those goals,” she said. As a result, “making sure the right person comes in is important, as there is a lot going on at the moment and changing ministers inevitably leads to a time lag.”
“The U.K. is still one of the most important players in development and so we don’t want a big lag; we need to be cracking on,” she added.
Alex Thier, executive director of the London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, agreed that DFID needs to find a strong replacement and also a clear and coherent direction — something he indicated was lacking under Patel.
“DFID needs to get back on track with strong leadership that supports the mission of DFID as an independent entity with a few clear policy goals which are aligned with what the government wants to achieve … and [which] are in line with the aspirations of British people,” he said.
Patel’s abrupt departure has led some politicians to resume calls for DFID to be merged into the Foreign Office, such as the U.K. Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quoted last month as saying it had been a mistake to separate the departments in 1997, which he later denied having said.
Although industry insiders told Devex the move is unlikely, CDG Europe Director and Vice President Owen Barder called on DFID to operate “not merely an aid department,” but as a “development ministry, working effectively with and across government to support policies and programs that help build a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.”