Defence Secretary hits back after PM accused of lying over Afghan Nowzad animal rescue

Defence Secretary hits back after PM accused of lying over Afghan Nowzad animal rescue
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Gareth Milner

By Gareth Milner

Published: 26/01/2022

- 21:53

Labour said new evidence shared with MPs showed Mr Johnson failed to tell the truth over how animals linked to the charity Nowzad had made their way to the UK

The Defence Secretary has doubled down in his defence of Boris Johnson after the Prime Minister was accused of lying about his part in the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan.

Labour said new evidence shared with MPs showed Mr Johnson failed to tell the truth over how animals linked to the charity Nowzad had made their way to the UK during the Allied withdrawal from Kabul in the summer.

Leaked emails have surfaced in which Foreign Office officials suggest the Prime Minister “authorised” their rescue, despite Mr Johnson previously saying it was “complete nonsense” that he had intervened.

Ben Wallace, in his second comment on the situation in a matter of hours, said the Nowzad evacuation was “nothing to do with the Prime Minister”.

The Defence Secretary told broadcasters: “The claims that have been made and emails from the Foreign Office, who were not responsible for the actual evacuation operation, I don’t know where they come from but they certainly don’t show the reality, which was: I was in charge, the Prime Minister never asked me, it was nonsense.”

No 10 also issued a statement, coming shortly after the Prime Minister’s official spokesman held a briefing with reporters, stressing that Mr Johnson had played “no role” in the UK armed forces rescue mission, Operation Pitting, or the evacuation of animals from the Taliban-captured territory.

However, Sky News reported that Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, who was then parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Mr Johnson, had contacted a private charter company to try to secure a plane to help with the Nowzad evacuation, and a source at the company told the broadcaster it was implicit that she was acting with the PM’s backing.

Ms Harrison told Sky News she had contacted companies, and had told staff she was a PPS to Mr Johnson, but that she was acting as a constituency MP and Mr Johnson was not involved in plans around the evacuation.

Ms Harrison previously wrote to former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, who ran the Nowzad shelter, to inform him the evacuation would go ahead.

She also said she was acting as a constituency MP when that letter came to light, despite the letter’s signature including her title as the Prime Minister’s PPS.

Mr Farthing launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, using a plane funded through donations.

The UK Government sponsored clearance for the charter flight, leading to allegations that animals had been prioritised over people in the exit effort.

The re-emergence of the row comes after a whistleblower leaked email exchanges to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, with MPs making them public on Wednesday.

The evidence shows an official in the private office of Lord Goldsmith – a joint Foreign Office and environment minister – told colleagues working on the evacuation on August 25 that “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”, in reference to the charity Nowzad.

The email was handed to the committee by Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) at the time, and has claimed the animals were evacuated following a direct instruction from the Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly denied the accusation, however, telling broadcasters on December 7 that insinuations of his involvement were “complete nonsense”.

On the same day in December, Lord Goldsmith told the House of Lords that the premier’s rebuttal was “entirely accurate”.

The Tory peer tweeted on Wednesday: “I did not authorise and do not support anything that would have put animals’ lives ahead of peoples’.

“My position, which I made clear publicly, was that the UK should prioritise evacuating people.

“I never discussed the Nowzad charity or their efforts to evacuate animals with the PM.”

But opposition parties said the email disclosure to MPs indicated the “Prime Minister has been caught out lying” and accused him of making the “wrong calls”.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “He should never have given priority to flying animals out of Afghanistan while Afghans who worked for our armed forces were left behind.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman Layla Moran called for Mr Johnson to “immediately make a public statement to correct the record and for once tell the truth”.

Dominic Dyer, who led the political lobbying campaign from the UK for Nowzad to be offered support, said Mr Johnson’s refusal to acknowledge his role in the evacuation had “tarnished” the campaign.

Mr Dyer said the published emails “vindicated” what he had previously set out, and argued the Prime Minister could be “very proud of giving support to this as a humanitarian rescue mission”.

He told the PA news agency: “I’m not certain why he didn’t feel he could explain his involvement in August at the end of this operation.

“It has tarnished what has been a very important operation that had huge public support.”

He told Sky News: “I know Trudy Harrison, the PPS to the prime minister that was helping us on the campaign team, reached out to the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, and we were just looking at different options that were available to us.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister had no role in authorising individual evacuations from Afghanistan during Op Pitting, including Nowzad staff and animals.

“At no point did the Prime Minister instruct staff to take any particular course of action on Nowzad.”

In a statement, Nowzad said: “As a charity, we had no oversight of any communication between any Government departments relating to who authorised the call forward of the Nowzad staff.”

It said only Mr Farthing, with his animals “in the cargo hold”, was able to leave Kabul in a chartered flight, with 67 Afghan staff and vets evacuated “by road to start new lives” in Britain.

The organisation said “no British military were put in harm’s way” and that the animal rescue occurred “after the British military had already ended Operation Pitting”.

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