Foreign Office admits no-one made Dominic Raab’s phone call for Afghan interpreters

‘It was not possible to arrange a call before the Afghan government collapsed,’ says government

Adam Forrest
Friday 20 August 2021 07:17
Dominic Raab defended by armed forces minister amid Afghan criticism

The crucial phone call foreign secretary Dominic Raab was urged to make to help evacuate interpreters in Afghanistan did not happen, the Foreign Office has admitted.

Senior government officials had reportedly advised that Mr Raab should call Afghan foreign minister last Friday as the Taliban neared Kabul – but were told he was “unavailable” while on holiday.

Responsibility was handed to a junior minister, and it was initially thought a delayed call had taken place on Saturday or Sunday as Kabul fell.

But the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has admitted no call took place. “Given the rapidly changing situation it was not possible to arrange a call before the Afghan government collapsed,” said a spokesman.

Mr Raab is facing mounting pressure to resign over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis as Labour warned there had been an “unforgiveable failure of leadership” by the government.

The party has demanded details about the government’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan and the foreign secretary’s holiday to Crete while Kabul fell. It has set out a list of 18 urgent questions for Mr Raab and other ministers to answer.

It comes as it emerged that the top civil servants at key departments are all currently on holiday. The Times reported that Sir Philip Barton, Matthew Rycroft and David Williams, permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence, were on holiday amid the evacuations from Afghanistan.

It is understood that the senior officials continued to work on Afghanistan while on leave, with another minister or an acting permanent secretary covering periods of leave.

A government spokesperson said: “Departments across Whitehall have been working intensively at all levels in the last few days and weeks on the situation in Afghanistan.”

Labour said it is requesting specifics on when Mr Raab was on leave from official duties, if he received advice from officials on the advisability of leaving, if he attended a Cobra meeting on August 15, and if other ministers were authorised to approve intelligence operations

The party also questioned Boris Johnson’s involvement, asking Mr Raab if he spoke with Mr Johnson while he was away, and if the PM gave permission for him to leave the country.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “For the prime minister and foreign secretary to be on holiday during the biggest foreign policy crisis in a generation is an unforgivable failure of leadership.”

Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have all called for Mr Raab to either quit or be sacked by the PM. They accused him of failing to “perform his basic duties” and argued he is “no longer fit” to represent the country.

Filmed walking into Downing Street on Thursday, a smiling Mr Raab was asked if he would resign – but told reporters: “No.”

Conservative MPs are said to be angry about Mr Raab’s handling of the crisis. “Raab was asleep at the wheel. Backbench MPs are absolutely livid about his ‘not my problem guv’ attitude, as if it was not his responsibility. It has really riled up colleagues,” one Tory MP told the Daily Mail.

Defending the government over the failure to place the call for Afghan interpreters, junior defence minister James Heappey told Sky News: “No one phone call would have changed the trajectory, either for the collapse of the Afghan government or the acceleration of the airlift.”

Asked whether Mr Raab’s job was safe, the junior minister told LBC: “That’s not a judgement for me. He has been very, very effective in what he has been doing in the last week.”

Only one backbench Tory MP has publicly defended Mr Raab in recent days. Angela Richardson tweeted: “Thanks for everything you do. I know that you are working around the clock no matter where you are located … that means any time zone, anywhere.”

Meanwhile, senior MPs have warned the government must ensure it meets its responsibility towards UK-linked workers “pursued into hiding” by Taliban forces.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, and Conservative Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, warned the scope of the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was “too narrow”.

In a letter to the home secretary, they urged Priti Patel to provide more resources to support the issuing of visas to ensure those trying to leave Afghanistan do not face administrative delays which would be “unforgivable at this dangerous time”.

The junior defence minister said 963 people had been evacuated from Kabul on the RAF “air bridge” in the last 24 hours. Mr Heappey said it was unclear how long the UK evacuation plan will last because of the “dynamic” circumstances.

He said he understood the Taliban are not turning people away from Kabul airport, noting: “Where they have done I’ve heard it’s more that they are being officious rather than malicious.”

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