Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has issued a defiant defence of his handling of the Afghanistan crisis – claiming he was too busy working on security issues to make a call on behalf of Afghan interpreters.
Mr Raab has insisted he will not resign after failing to make a crucial call to help fleeing interpreters while on holiday in Crete, despite growing demands for him to quit.
Senior government officials had reportedly advised that Mr Raab he should call Afghan foreign minister last Friday about the interpreters as the Taliban neared Kabul – but were told he was “unavailable” while on holiday.
The foreign secretary issued a statement on Friday saying the call had been delegated to a junior minister because he was “prioritising security and capacity at the airport” while working in Crete.
Mr Raab, who is facing calls from Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to quit, said on Twitter that he wanted to respond to “inaccurate media reporting over recent days”.
The foreign secretary stated: “On Friday afternoon, 13 August, advice was put to my private office (around 6pm Afghan time) recommending a call to the Afghan foreign minister. This was quickly overtaken by events.”
Explaining why he failed to act on the request, Mr Raab said: “The call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the director and the director general overseeing the crisis response.”
He added: “In any event, the Afghan foreign minister agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The government’s approach to prioritise security at the airport was the right one.”
Labour continues to demand more specific answers from the government on exactly when Mr Raab was on leave from official duties, 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.”
One Whitehall source told The Guardian the foreign secretary “refused to be contacted on basically anything” for over week while in Crete, adding that there was “an incredibly high bar to getting him to look at anything while on holiday”.
It was initially reported that the Afghan foreign ministry refused to arrange a call about interpreters with a junior minister, pushing it back to the next day.
But the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said 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.
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, junior defence minister James Heappey said on Friday: “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 added: “That’s not a judgement for me. He has been very, very effective in what he has been doing in the last week.”
Meanwhile, No 10 has said the prime minister will chair another Cobra meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan.