Kabul animal airlift: Foreign Office says sorry for misleading MPs on No 10 emails

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Kabul animal airlift: Foreign Office says sorry for misleading MPs on No 10 emails
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: House of Commons/PA

A senior official at the Foreign Office has apologised for misleading MPs over whether Boris Johnson’s views had been sought over the evacuation of animals from Kabul during the chaotic retreat from Afghanistan last August.

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Sir Philip Barton, the Foreign Office’s permanent undersecretary, had told the foreign affairs committee that Nigel Casey, the prime minister’s special representative for Afghanistan, had not received any correspondence referring to an intervention by Boris Johnson in the evacuation of animals from the Nowzad charity.

But emails revealed by Newsnight, showed Casey did “seek clear guidance for us from No 10 asap on what they would like us to do” in the case.

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Barton has now written to the committee’s chairman, the Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, to apologise for giving “inadvertently inaccurate answers”. He said that “on the day the email was sent, Nigel was almost entirely focused, in his role as Gold in our crisis response, on the terrorist threat to the evacuation”.

Last month in evidence to the committee, Barton was challenged about a letter sent by the MP Trudy Harrison, the parliamentary private secretary to Johnson, to the Nowzad founder Pen Farthing setting out confirmation from the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence that the animal evacuation flight could take place.

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Labour’s Chris Bryant, questioning Barton, said: “That feels to me very much like a direction from the prime minister … that does not equate with what you’ve told us, does it?”

At the time Barton replied: “I am not aware of the letter you are talking about. I am happy to look at it, but we have not set out this afternoon to mislead you.”

During the session to the committee, Barton was also criticised by MPs for remaining on holiday after Kabul fell in August.

In his apology letter, Sir Philip said Casey has “no recollection of having seen emails in which staff attributed this decision to the prime minister”, adding: “Nor do I.”

His clarification and apology will fuel the continuing row about the prime minister’s honesty. On Thursday Johnson has said any allegations that he personally intervened to get the animals out of Afghanistan were “total rhubarb”. And Downing Street has repeatedly denied intervening in any individual cases in the final days of the mission as thousands of people who sought to flee the Taliban were left behind.

But the prime minister has been accused of lying after leaked correspondence suggested the involvement of No 10. An email leaked this week to the committee from a Foreign Office official working in the private office of the Tory peer Zac Goldsmith said: “The PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated.”

Related: UK defence secretary asked to explain denial of Kabul animal airlift

The BBC reported another email from the same day saying the then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab was “seeking a steer from No 10 on whether” to call Nowzad staff forward.

BBC Newsnight’s Sima Kotecha obtained an email from the deputy principal private secretary to Raab at the time discussing Nowzad staff being called forward for evacuation. “The FS is seeking a steer from No 10 on whether to call them forward now,” it read.

Another email from Casey showed him asking a security official “to seek clear guidance for us from No 10 asap on what they would like us to do”.

Allies of Johnson tried to downplay the situation, with the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, dismissing calls for a debate as “fussing about a few animals”.

The emails to the Commons inquiry were leaked by Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office at the time and alleges the animals were evacuated after an order from Johnson.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson 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.”

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