Boris Johnson backs Foreign Office chief despite ‘disastrous’ Afghan evacuation

The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee demanded Sir Philip Barton considers his position in a scathing report.

Sam Blewett
Tuesday 24 May 2022 13:17
Boris Johnson has backed the top civil servant at the Foreign Office despite MPs demanding his resignation over “deep failures” during the Kabul evacuation (Ministry of Defence/PA)
Boris Johnson has backed the top civil servant at the Foreign Office despite MPs demanding his resignation over “deep failures” during the Kabul evacuation (Ministry of Defence/PA)

Boris Johnson has backed the top civil servant at the Foreign Office despite MPs demanding his resignation over “deep failures” during the Kabul evacuation.

The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee demanded Sir Philip Barton considers his position in a scathing report on the UK’s “betrayal” of Afghan allies.

Sir Philip was accused of displaying a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts” during the inquiry into the “disaster” of the withdrawal as the Taliban seized power.

The Foreign Office’s top civil servant, permanent-under secretary Sir Philip Barton (House of Commons/PA)

Then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Sir Philip’s failures to return from holiday as Kabul fell last August marked a “fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership”, the MPs said.

Leaders at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) were told to be “ashamed” that civil servants had to risk their careers by blowing the whistle to unearth the “appalling mismanagement of the crisis” as the Taliban swept to power.

Downing Street disputed aspects of the report and said the Prime Minister retains full confidence in Sir Philip as FCDO permanent secretary.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also backs Sir Philip, the PA news agency was told.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We don’t agree with all of the conclusions that the committee has drawn on this.”

An RAF C-17A Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft, flown by 99 Squadron, landing at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire (Cpl Matty Matthews/MoD/PA)

Ministers were accused of having a “total absence of a plan” for Afghans who supported the British mission, despite knowing for 18 months that the evacuations may be necessary if the US withdrew its troops.

But the spokesman praised staff’s efforts during the evacuation and said there was “significant pre-planning before that”.

Asked if Mr Johnson retains confidence in Sir Philip, the spokesman said: “Yes.”

The spokesman insisted it is not impossible to get fired from Government.

Pressed on why Sir Philip is the right person for the job, the spokesman said: “He has significant experience in that field and a number of changes have already been made.”

The spokesman also said Mr Johnson does not regret making Mr Raab Deputy Prime Minister after the evacuation.

The MPs also said they are yet to hear a “plausible alternative explanation” to Mr Johnson approving the controversial evacuation for the Nowzad animal charity.

Asked to provide an alternative explanation, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “The Prime Minister had no role in authorising individual evacuations from Afghanistan during that operation – that includes Nowzad staff and animals.

“At no point did the Prime Minister instruct staff to take any particular course of action.”

We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine, including ... increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response

Government spokesman

The committee, led by senior Tory Tom Tugendhat, concluded that the withdrawal was a “disaster” and a “betrayal” of British allies that will damage the UK’s interest for years.

The hasty efforts to select individuals for airlift was “poorly devised, managed and staffed”, with a lack of clarity causing “confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue”.

“They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in Government,” the committee said.

Sir Philip “displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the department he leads” and a determination to avoid unearthing the facts, the MPs said.

“The committee has lost confidence in the permanent under-secretary, who should consider his position,” the MPs concluded.

Mr Raab insisted in the Commons he will not be resigning from Government despite the growing criticism of his handling of the crisis.

Labour MP Andy Slaughter asked: “Given the constitutional importance of his role, is the Lord Chancellor considering his position in the Cabinet in the light of the foreign affairs select committee report on the withdrawal from Afghanistan?”

Mr Raab replied: “No.”

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