Here are the main points from the Downing Street lobby briefing.
- The PM’s spokesman strongly denied a claim from a Foreign Office official that Boris Johnson ordered the rescue of dogs from Kabul. (See 12.25pm.)
- The spokesman said the decision to allow a chartered flight to evacuate animals from a charity run by a Briton in the city did not distract from the effort to evacuate people. He said:
We are confident that at all times we prioritised people over animals. We continued to evacuate people right up until the last possible moment … The approach we took [in] regards to that charter flight in no way distracted from that commitment.
In his evidence (pdf) to the foreign affairs committee, the Foreign Office whistleblower Raphael Marshall claims the government “transported animals which were not at risk of harm at the direct expense of evacuating British nationals and people at risk of imminent murder”. (See 10.38am.)
- Johnson told cabinet that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta, the spokesman said. (See 12.40pm.)
- The spokesman stood by his claim from yesterday that there was no Christmas party in Downing Street last December. Asked if he wanted to revise his position in the light of the latest report saying staff were invited to the party at least a week in advance (see 12.07pm), the spokesman said he did not have anything more to add.
- The spokesman did not rule out the UK ordering a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China. Asked if the UK would be following the US, which has announced such a boycott, the spokesman said that a decision had not yet been made on government attendance at the Olympics and that a decision would be announced “in due course”. This is from the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher.
- The spokesman said that 539 homes were still waiting for power to be restored following Storm Arwen 11 days ago. Asked what the PM felt about such a long wait, the spokesman said:
It’s obviously unacceptable that these homes, these families are without power, we’ve seen the situation improve but that will not be of help to those who are still facing this challenge.
At cabinet this morning Boris Johnson told his ministers that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta, which is currently the dominant variant in the UK. The No 10 cabinet readout says:
The prime minister said it was too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of Omicron but that early indications were that it was more transmissible than Delta. Further measures were introduced this week to help slow transmission and further seeding of the variant, and the prime minister reiterated that booster vaccines remain our best defence against new and existing variants, with the NHS on course to meet the target of offering a booster to all adults by the end of January.
Johnson’s comment will not have surprised ministers who have been reading the papers, because over the past week the evidence to back this up has been getting stronger and stronger.
The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished, and the prime minister’s spokesman has strongly denied the claim from the Foreign Office whistleblower that Boris Johnson intervened to ensure that dogs from a rescue home run by a Briton in Kabul were rescued. (See 11.15am.)
Asked about the claim from Raphael Marshall , the spokesman said:
It’s entirely untrue. At no point did the prime minister intervene. We have always prioritised people over animals, as we said both during [the airlift] and subsequently.
Asked if the PM intervened to help Paul “Pen” Farthing and staff at his Nowzad animal charity to get out, the spokesman replied:
No, he didn’t instruct officials to take any particular course of action on that issue. As you know, this was agreed by the defence secretary. Clearance for Pen Farthing’s flight was sponsored by the UK.
Asked if the PM instructed ministers, the spokesman denied that too, and he said the PM’s focus was on saving and evacuating people.
The spokesman also insisted that the PM’s wife, Carrie, who is an animal rights campaigner, was not involved. Asked if she shared her views with officials in any way, the spokesman said she did not.
I will post more from the briefing soon.
In the Times (paywall) today Oliver Wright says the Downing Street Christmas party last year (the one that No 10 claims wasn’t a party, and did not breach lockdown rules) was organised at least a week in advance, via WhatsApp. Wright says:
The party last year is understood to have been organised via a WhatsApp group with staff asked to bring “Secret Santa” presents. Some of those present also wore Christmas jumpers.
About 30 people are understood to have attended the event. Some staff working in other parts of the building are said to have joined in the festivities later in an “impromptu” way …
Two sources have confirmed that the December 18 event did take place, with one saying it that it had been organised in advance. “Of course it was premeditated because everyone came with Secret Santa presents. It was arranged at least a week in advance via WhatsApp with a follow-up email.”
They added that there was a “proper spread” of food that people had brought along with alcohol. “The majority of people there were civil servants with a few special advisers and others there,” the source added. “But it was mostly officials.”
Jenny Jones, the Green party peer, has written to the Independent Office for Police Conduct asking for an investigation on the grounds that, if there was a party, the police on duty at Downing Street must have known about it, and therefore played a role in facilitating an illegal gathering.
In his Today programme interview this morning Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, strongly played down a report in the Times yesterday claiming the government wants to make it easier for ministers to overrule judicial review decisions that go against them. Asked if it was true he was planning to limit the power of judges to order the government to obey the law, Raab replied: “No.” Asked about claims the government wanted to have an annual “interpretation bill” to allow judicial review decisions to be overruled, he replied: “I don’t even recognise that title.”
Here are a few of the (very many) Twitter tributes to Harriet Harman, following her announcement that she is standing down as an MP at the next election. (See 9.36am.)
From Keir Starmer, the Labour leader
From Ed Miliband, the former leader
From Tom Watson, the former deputy leader
From Labour MP Jess Phillips
From the Labour MP Sarah Champion
Amanda Spielman, head of the Ofsted schools inspectorate, has said England risks a repeat of cases such as Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the six-year-old abused and murdered in his own home last year, if schools and social services are disrupted by future lockdowns, my colleague Richard Adams reports.
In his memo (pdf) for the foreign affairs committee, Raphael Marshall, the Foreign Office whistleblower, says Boris Johnson ordered officials to help ensure that Paul “Pen” Farthing, a former Royal Marine who ran a dog charity in Kabul called Nowzad, was able to evacuate his animals. Marshall says:
We received an instruction from the prime minister to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals.
But Marshall does not elaborate on the PM’s involvement in his memo. Elsewhere he says that Wendy Morton, a Foreign Office minister, intervened and asked for help with the Nowzad evacuation.
Over the summer there were suspicions that Johnson was involved in the decision to help Nowzad (a decision that angered Ben Wallace, the defence secretary) because his wife, Carrie, is a passionate animal lover. But No 10 said at the time that neither Johnson nor his wife were involved.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow atttorney general and a former shadow foreign secretary, has said Dominic Raab should resign because of the failings at the Foreign Office documented by the whistleblower Raphael Marshall. She told Times Radio:
It sounds complete chaos. But responsibility goes to the top and what we have at the moment is we had the former foreign secretary training around the television and the radio studios, not being prepared to take any responsibility for this at all. That I’m afraid is yet another example of the poor character of Dominic Raab. I really think that he should consider his position.
“Consider his position” is Westminster terminology for resign. Thornberry does not mean Raab should have a good think about whether he is in the right job, and then decide he is. But given that Raab has already left the Foreign Office (in what was seen as a demotion), calling for him to quit now is unusual.
And here is what Dominic Raab said this morning when asked about some of the specific criticisms in the lengthy memo (pdf) from the Foreign Office whistleblower, Raphael Marshall.
Number of Afghans who failed to receive help
What Marshall says:
I estimate between 75,000 and 150,000 people (including dependents) applied for evacuation under the LOTR scheme [leave outside the rules scheme – a scheme for Afghans whose lives were at risk and who did not qualify for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP), which helped Afghans who had worked for the British]. The vast majority of these applicants feared their lives were at risk as a result of their connection to the UK and the West and were therefore eligible for evacuation.
I estimate fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance. It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban.
What Raab says:
Asked if he recognised the 5% figure, Raab said:
I don’t. But what is certainly true is that we had a lot of people rushing to get out of Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons.
And I think it’s right that we had a process in place to check two things: one, that we were helping those at genuine risk of persecution, or British nationals or people who had worked for the British government.
And secondly, making sure that we didn’t allow anyone to come into the UK who might present a threat to the UK.
And it was important to have a process to make those decisions swiftly but also accurately.
Prioritising animals over humans
What Marshall says:
I believe that British soldiers were put at risk in order to bring [the dog charity] Nowzad’s animals into the airport. It has been reported that British soldiers ventured into the crowd around Kabul airport to clear the way for Nowzad’s vehicles. At this point, the crowd was estimated to exceed 25,000 people, with many Taliban fighters present. There were many reports of people being crushed to death. On 26 August, 13 US Marines and around 170 civilians were murdered by an Isis-K suicide bomber in the same area of the airport. In these circumstances, any task which involved British soldiers venturing into the crowd presented a meaningful risk to the soldiers.
I understand that an American animal charity is still operating in Kabul managed by an American. I understand the animals and staff of this charity have not been subject to any mistreatment by the Taliban. I understand that far from being harassed by the Taliban, this charity has been able to hire members of the Taliban. This vindicates the MoD and FCDO’s belief that neither Nowzad’s animals nor its staff were at risk from the Taliban.
HMG therefore transported animals which were not at risk of harm at the direct expense of evacuating British nationals and people at risk of imminent murder, including interpreters who had served with the British Army.
What Raab says:
That’s just not accurate. We did not put the welfare of animals above individuals.
Asked if Marshall was lying about this, Raab said:
I am not accusing anyone of lying. I am just correcting the facts.
Desk officers taking key decisions
What Marshall says:
Marshall said at certain points desk officers [relatively junior officials] took key decisions relating to who would get help. He says:
At this point two colleagues (I believe a D6/G7/Team Leader and a C4/HEO/Desk Officer respectively) further narrowed down the list in line with a senior civil servant’s instructions. These were committed people and I am sure they carried out this task with integrity. However it is unclear on what basis they made these decisions.
What Raab says:
The suggestion that junior desk officers were making decisions is just not correct. There’s a difference between processing and deciding, so I’m afraid I don’t accept that characterisation.
Time taken to take decisions
What Marshall says:
To address some of the numerous requests for the reconsideration of particular cases we received, the Crisis Centre adopted a system of submitting exceptional cases to the foreign secretary for approval. We therefore wrote notes or submissions on a series of individual cases which arose for the foreign secretary’s approval.
It took several hours for the foreign secretary to engage on any of these notes.
What Raab says:
On the charge it took several hours to make decisions, we’re not talking about days, it’s not been suggested weeks, but several hours to make sure we had the facts, and that, as between myself, the home secretary and the defence secretary, decisions were made and actually I would suggest that’s a reasonably swift turnaround.
What Marshall says:
Marshall has a whole section in his paper with the heading “inadequate staffing”. At one point he said:
On the afternoon of Saturday 21 August, I was the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan special cases inbox. No emails from after early Friday afternoon had been read at that point. The number of unread emails was already in the high thousands, I believe above 5,000, and increasing constantly.
What Raab says:
I think the inherent challenge of getting factual questions in relation to undocumented people applying for the three different schemes that were available – that is inherent. I don’t think having extra staff in London would have particularly made that easier.
The challenge was deciphering the facts on the ground, as well as the second operational challenge, which was making sure we could get to the airport in Kabul, safe passage, given the very difficult conditions there.
Asked about Marshall working on his own, Raab said:
It certainly wouldn’t be correct to say that he was the only person working on it. We had a thousand people working. Of course, they would do it on a rota shift, but the Foreign Office were working night and day, but of course this was a joint operation because the claims were coming through in relation to three separate schemes and the Home Office, the MoD was working with the Foreign Office. I think the cross-Whitehall effort was extensive.
And at another point Raab said:
Well over 1,000 Foreign Office staff were working often night and day on rota system … as well as the troops on the ground in Afghanistan under incredible operational pressures. I would point to the fact that in just two weeks, 15,000 people were evacuated.
I don’t think in living memory we’ve seen an operation on that scale and certainly in relation to this one, no other country bar the United States evacuated more.
How Raab wanted information presented
What Marshall says:
It took several hours for the foreign secretary to engage on any of these notes. In the circumstances, I am not sure why. The foreign secretary then replied through his private office to say that he could not decide on individual cases and he would need all the cases set out in a well-presented table to make decisions. I understand that he or his private office had commented that as a lawyer he could not take information without the full facts in a table. We therefore reformatted the table and sent it back to the foreign secretary.
What Raab says:
In terms of presentation, of course with the volume of claims coming in I make no apology for saying I needed the clear facts that each case presented precisely so we can make swift decisions.
The memo from Raphael Marshall, a former official at the Foreign Office about how the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as it is now) handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan is particularly powerful because it is long, detailed, and calmly and rationally argued. You can read it in full here (pdf).
Although Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, is disputing many of the claims in the document, he is not dismissing the whole thing out of hand.
Speaking on the Today programme, he accepted that there were lessons to be learned from the operation.
But he also argued that, in general, Marshall was not taking enough account of the “facts on the ground”. He said:
Do I also want to say that some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground – the operational pressures that with the takeover of the Taliban, unexpected around the world, both our teams in Afghanistan, military, Home Office, Foreign Office, all doing a great job, working very closely together, coupled with the crisis centre in London? Yeah, I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was.
Harriet Harman, who was Labour’s deputy leader from 2007 and 2015 and who served as interim party leader after Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband both resigned, has announced that she is standing down from parliament.
She has also posted a nice Twitter thread on what has changed during her time in parliament here.
Although Harman never held particularly high office in government, her record as a campaigner is remarkable and it is hard to think of any MP in parliament now who has been linked with pushing through so much transformative, progressive change.
I’ll post more on her departure later.
Good morning. It is a difficult day for Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister and justice secretary, because a former official has given the Commons foreign affairs committee a shocking account of how the Foreign Office handled the evacuation of Afghanistan when Raab was foreign secretary. My colleague Patrick Wintour has the story here.
And my colleague Aubrey Allegretti has summarises the whistleblower’s main accusations here.
Commenting on the evidence, set out in this 40-page memo (pdf), Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, said:
These allegations are serious and go to the heart of the failures of leadership around the Afghan disaster, which we have seen throughout this inquiry. These failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and Nato effort. The evidence we’ve heard alleges dysfunction within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and substantial failings throughout the Afghanistan evacuation effort.
Raab has been giving interviews this morning, and he has rejected some – but by no means all – of the claims made in the memo. Asked on the Today programme if the description of the Foreign Office as dysfunctional and chaotic under his leadership was unfair and untrue, Raab replied: “What I would say is it’s inaccurate in certain respects.”
He also told Sky News that he did not think the problems with the handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan led to his being demoted in the subsequent reshuffle.
I will post more from his interviews shortly.
Here is the agenda for the day
9.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet.
10am: Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister, gives evidence to the Commons culture committee about her fan-led review of football governance.
11.30am: Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, takes questions in the Commons.
11.30am: Downing Street holds its lobby briefing.
After 12.45pm: MPs resume their debate on the nationality and borders bill.
2.20pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, gives a statement to MSPs about Covid.
3pm: Sir Philip Barton, head of the Foreign Office, and other senior diplomats give evidence to the Commons foreign affairs committee about Afghanistan.
3.30pm: Alok Sharma, president of Cop26, gives evidence to the environmental audit committee.
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