Johnson says suggestion he intervened in animal airlift is ‘total rhubarb’

Boris Johnson has been accused of lying after leaked emails contradicted his stance of denying his involvement.

Sam Blewett
Thursday 27 January 2022 13:05
Pen Farthing, founder of animal rescue charity Nowzad (Nowzad/PA)
Pen Farthing, founder of animal rescue charity Nowzad (Nowzad/PA)

Boris Johnson said it is “total rhubarb” to say he intervened to get animals airlifted out of Afghanistan after leaked emails suggested he authorised the controversial move.

Accused of lying about his role, the Prime Minister sought to dismiss allegations he personally approved the evacuation of cats and dogs from the Nowzad charity in Kabul.

He has repeatedly denied approving their rescue in the final days of the mission as thousands of people wanting to flee the Taliban were left behind.

But a newly-surfaced email shared with a Commons inquiry shows a Foreign Office official saying in August that the Prime Minister had just “authorised” the animals’ rescue.

“This whole thing is total rhubarb,” the Prime Minister told broadcasters during a visit to Hanson Aggregates in Conwy, North Wales, saying he was “proud” of the military airlifts.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman had earlier said: “It’s not uncommon in Whitehall for a decision to be interpreted or portrayed as coming directly from the Prime Minister even when that’s not the case and it’s our understanding that’s what happened in this instance. We appreciate it was a frenetic time for those officials dealing with this situation.”

Asked if he was suggesting the Foreign Office official was mistaken, he replied: “I can’t say individually which official but that’s our understanding of what happened.”

Cabinet minister Therese Coffey suggested the official had been acting in an unauthorised capacity.

The Work and Pensions Secretary told LBC: “I’ve seen a screenshot of an email. Quite often it’s not unusual in Parliament and in Government for people to say… for their pet projects the PM has said it’s a priority.

“There are a lot of things we deliver as the Government but the PM had no role in individual evacuations and the Defence Secretary (Ben Wallace) said he was in charge of (the overall rescue operation) in that regard.”

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described calls for a debate on the issue as “fussing about a few animals”.

Emails shared with the Foreign Affairs Committee show an official in Foreign Office minister Lord Goldsmith’s private office telling colleagues on August 25 “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson rides in the back seat of a Government car (Victoria Jones/PA)

A separate email from another Foreign Office official referred to the “PM’s decision earlier today to evacuate the staff of the Nowzad animal charity”.

They were submitted to the MPs by Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office at the time and alleges the animals were evacuated following an order from Mr Johnson – despite the Prime Minister previously describing suggestions he personally intervened as “complete nonsense”.

A previously leaked letter showed Conservative MP Trudy Harrison then parliamentary private secretary to Mr Johnson, also hinted at involvement.

The MP for Copeland wrote to Nowzad founder Paul “Pen” Farthing on August 25 to inform him the evacuation could go ahead.

With it unclear how the charity is connected to the Cumbrian constituency, Mr Marshall said No 10’s claim she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP is “not credible”.

He told the committee: “A request for the evacuation of Nowzad’s staff from Ms Harrison in her capacity as MP for Copeland would have been disregarded.”

Pen Farthing was the founder of animal rescue charity Nowzad (Nowzad/PA)

In another development, Ms Harrison admitted contacting a private charter company in a bid to secure a plane to transport Nowzad’s staff and animals.

A charter employee told Sky News the Tory MP contacted the unnamed firm on August 25, making it clear she was working for the Prime Minister, repeatedly referring to him as “the boss”.

In a statement, Ms Harrison responded: “I was assisting Pen Farthing and Nowzad as a constituency MP in response to many Copeland constituents’ requests to assist.”

Another document released by the Commons committee revealed Sir Philip Barton, the top civil servant in the Foreign Office, said he was “not aware” of any support from No 10 for the animal airlift.

Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson played “no role” in authorising individual evacuations during the RAF rescue mission, which was dubbed Operation Pitting.

Mr Wallace told broadcasters: “The claims that have been made and emails from the Foreign Office, who were not responsible for the actual evacuation operation, I don’t know where they come from but they certainly don’t show the reality, which was: I was in charge, the Prime Minister never asked me, it was nonsense.”

Trudy Harrison (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

As Kabul fell to the Taliban, Mr Farthing launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out, using a plane funded through donations.

The Government sponsored clearance for the charter flight, leading to allegations that animals had been prioritised over people in the exit effort.

Dominic Dyer, an ally of Mr Farthing, previously said he spoke with ministers and Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie to “put pressure on him” over the evacuation.

On Thursday, he said he felt “vindicated” by the newly-released emails, adding: “I’m not certain why he didn’t feel he could explain his involvement in August at the end of this operation.”

Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “Once again, the Prime Minister has been caught out lying about what he has been doing and deciding.

“He should never have given priority to flying animals out of Afghanistan while Afghans who worked for our armed forces were left behind.”

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