‘Total rhubarb’: Boris Johnson dismisses claims he approved Afghanistan pet rescue as fresh email emerges

·5 min read

Fresh evidence has emerged suggesting No 10 was involved in the airlift of animals out of Afghanistan as Boris Johnson sought to dismiss allegations that he personally intervened as “total rhubarb”.

Accused of lying, the Prime Minister tried to fend off allegations that he assisted the approval of the evacuation of cats and dogs with the Nowzad charity from Kabul.

But, as he was talking, further leaked correspondence was published, suggesting that then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab and No 10 were involved in the decision.

Downing Street has repeatedly denied intervening in any individual cases in the final days of the mission as thousands of people wanting to flee the Taliban were left behind.

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

And the BBC reported another email from the same day saying Mr Raab was “seeking a steer from No 10 on whether” to call Nowzad staff forward.

Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to North Wales on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “This whole thing is total rhubarb.”

Pressed if he intervened, he responded: “Absolutely not, the military always prioritised human beings.”

Labour accused Mr Johnson of having been “caught out lying” when correspondence seemingly contradicting his denials that he had ever intervened first emerged.

It comes after Sky News revealed that Trudy Harrison, the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary, contacted a private charter company on August 25, days before the evacuation of Kabul came to an end.

An employee at the company told Sky News that Ms Harrison claimed the prime minister was keen to ensure that the animals got out of the country quickly.

Ms Harrison said that she had contacted a “whole raft of people and companies” but insisted that she did so as a constituency MP.

She said that she “made clear” that she was Mr Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary to those she spoke to, but added: “I had no conversations with the prime minister at any time about encouraging him to authorise or support in any way Pen Farthing and the team.”

On Thursday morning the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey faced difficult questions as to whether Mr Johnson had lied over his role in the evacuation.

But speaking to Sky News she insisted: “The PM didn’t make any individual decisions about evacuations.

“The PM has been clear about what he said. A lot of people will claim that the PM is involved in supporting their particular pet projects but the PM has said he wasn’t involved in individual decisions.

“That’s what the Defence Secretary, who was in charge of Operation Pitting overall, has said as well and I think it’s important the Defence Secretary is absolutely right. The PM’s been clear that he had no individual decisions on all those individual elements of operations.”

She went on: “People were absolutely prioritised, our brave armed forces worked really hard to get 15,000 British nationals and Afghans out of Kabul in that very difficult time.”

An email released on Wednesday, written by an aide in the private office of Lord Zac Goldsmith, a Foreign Office Minister, appeared to suggest the Prime Minister’s involvement in the decision to evacuate the animals and staff of Nowzad.

Referring to the case of another charity operating in Kabul which was also seeking the evacuation of their staff, the aide wrote: “Equivalent charity Nowzad, run by an ex-Royal Marine, has received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated, [animal charity - name redacted] are hoping to be treated in the same capacity (granted LOTR).”

Nowzad animals and staff were evacuated on a privately-funded charter plane.

However, the government was criticised at the time by whistleblowers and MPs for prioritising “pets over people” amid claims that they diverted limited resources on the ground to rescue the cats and dogs.

The Prime Minister has previously denied that he intervened to help Nowzad during the evacuation in summer 2021 after US and UK left the country. He told reporters in December: “That’s complete nonsense.”

Downing Street on Wednesday attempted to distance Mr Johnson from involvement in the decision on evacuating the Nowzad animals.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Wednesday: “It remains the case that the PM didn’t instruct officials to take any particular course of action.”

The Defence Secretary has said “at no point” was he directed by Boris Johnson to “evacuate Pen Farthing, his workforce or his pets” from Afghanistan.

In a statement, Ben Wallace said: “I have seen the reports of emails concerning Pen Farthing and the pet evacuation.

“The evacuation of Kabul under Operation Pitting was run under my authority and delivered by the UK military through the Chief of Joint Operations.

“At no point were he or I directed by the Prime Minister to evacuate Pen Farthing, his workforce or his pets.

“As I made clear at the time, we were not going to put pets before people and as the actions showed, Pen Farthing left last and his workforce had to leave after the evacuation was concluded via other means.

“The evacuation was a Ministry of Defence led operation, supported by application processing by the Home Office and FCDO. The idea that an environment minister and his officials had any authority or responsibility in the running of the evacuation is ludicrous.

“I am however aware of false claims made throughout by Nowzad that led to considerable distress and distraction to those trying to save lives in very difficult circumstances.”

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