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Stuart Polak: the Westminster veteran at the centre of the Priti Patel storm

Ennobled by David Cameron two years ago, Lord Polak is a veteran of Westminster’s corridors of power. He is likely to be horrified by the headlines and coverage around the Patel trip.

    Lord Polak speaking in the House of Lords last week (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)
    Lord Polak speaking in the House of Lords last week (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)

    Political observers may consider the Priti Patel affair to be another fine mess for the government, but, in many respects it is a surprising one.

    Surprising because Stuart Polak, one of its main protagonists, is a shrewd political operator with decades of experience in his field.

    The jury is currently out on whether, in organising a series of high-profile meetings for the International Development Secretary in Israel this summer, he made one of the biggest misjudgements of his career, or whether he is a largely innocent party in a fiasco which damages him, the Conservative Friends of Israel group which he has nurtured for more than quarter of a century, and the political party which he loves.

    Ennobled by David Cameron two years ago, Lord Polak is a veteran of Westminster’s corridors of power. He has taken literally hundreds of Tory MPs to Israel over the years, educating them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and securing their support in parliamentary votes and the public arena.

    Under his guidance, CFI became the biggest lobbying group in Westminster, holding lunches for 700 guests, making countless Downing Street visits, and developing contacts throughout Israel and the Middle East.

    In turn Lord Polak – the savvy networker who began his career as a United Synagogue youth officer in Edgware - gained the ear of Prime Ministers, a peerage, and influence.

    He is likely to be horrified by the headlines and coverage around the Patel trip. As long ago as 1990 he told the JC what motivated him - a desire to “put as much as possible back into the community”, but he hinted at his own determination to succeed.

    “I’m as ambitious as the next man,” the peer, an avid Liverpool football fan, said, “but I’m motivated more by a sense of duty.”

    One Westminster activist told me they assumed there was “no malice” in the meetings the pair held in Israel, but accepted Ms Patel “would have been toast” in a different political climate.

    While no doubt there are JC readers, and perhaps even political correspondents, who might travel to Israel on a family holiday and find themselves meeting a charity leader or politician over a falafel by the beach, for a government minister to arrange a dozen engagements without telling her department, the Foreign Office or the British embassy in Tel Aviv, is a totally different matter.

    The almighty dressing down of Ms Patel by the Prime Minister yesterday will no doubt have reminded the International Development Secretary of the error of her ways, to say the least.

    Were Mrs May stronger, and in less choppy political waters, Ms Patel would already be spending more time with her constituents in her Essex constituency of Witham.

    Ms Patel in Downing Street during happier times
    Ms Patel in Downing Street during happier times

    In Westminster, insiders are musing over how damaging the fall-out will be, particularly for those with the Jewish community and Israel’s best interests at heart.

    Certainly CFI will be bruised by the events of the past few days, and a key pro-Israel voice in the cabinet will be neutered – if she manages even to cling on to her position as a minister.

    It has been thought for some time that Ms Patel has clashed with mandarins in her department. A year ago there was confusion over the Department for International Development’s position on funding for the Palestinian Authority. Ms Patel was said to have ordered a freeze on payments, while civil servants were trying to continue a review of the system.

    One source said today: “Her department clearly don’t like her – she’s pro-Israel and wants to get to grips with the issues.”

    Another figure who knows Lord Polak and Ms Patel said: “Probably Stuart thought she was doing everything properly, but if I was a CFI staff member I’d be massively p***ed off.”

    Those in the community who cringe at the thought of Israel being involved in another lobbying story, following the Al Jazeera secret filming row at the start of the year, will also despair.

    “There are so many antisemitic conspiracy nutters out there – they love to believe this stuff. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream,” said one leading figure.

    For Lord Polak it is unclear how damaging the episode will be. Insiders – including those who have known him for years – describe him as a “hard character to read” and someone who largely operates “below the radar”.

    That may be the case, but he is at times a prominent figure around Parliament. The day before the Patel story broke, he was deep in conversation with Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff, for a considerable amount of time in a public area. Hardly the stuff of secret backroom deals.

    Another Westminster source may have hit on the best explanation for the peer and politician’s actions last summer: “I think they knew they were not doing the right thing. They took a gamble and screwed up. Love him as I do, Stuart may have got too cocky for his own good. He’s helped Priti’s rise – and her fall.”

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