Dominic Raab was ordered home from his holiday in Crete by Downing Street as Afghanistan collapsed into chaos but stayed for two more days because Boris Johnson told him he could.
Tim Shipman www.thetimes.co.uk
A senior No 10 official advised the foreign secretary on Friday, August 13, to return but Whitehall sources say that Raab then “nobbled” the prime minister, who agreed to him remaining at the five-star resort until Sunday evening. Raab landed in Britain at 1.40am on Monday, after Kabul had fallen.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, was also on holiday as the militants swept to power. He was on a staycation until Sunday, the day they marched into the Afghan capital.
The confirmation that Johnson let his foreign secretary stay away at a time of international crisis will raise questions about his judgment. A senior government official said: “Raab was told to come back on Friday. On Sunday there was a sense of disbelief among everyone at the most senior levels in No 10 that he wasn’t there. He seems to have nobbled Boris after he was told to come back.”
Raab’s allies say he was told to “begin the process of coming home”, but one added: “In discussions with the prime minister it was agreed he would come back on Sunday.”
The exchanges cap an extraordinary week with a toxic briefing war over who was to blame for the Afghan catastrophe in which ministers, political aides, No 10 staff and civil servants have all found fault with the performance of Raab and the Foreign Office.
The bad blood continued last night as:
•It was revealed that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador in Kabul, was “eyeballed” by a senior military officer and told not to leave as his team were planning to pull out last weekend. Bristow was ordered to stay by a Foreign Office mandarin London.
•Ministers in other departments complained that Raab banned them, several months ago, from speaking to ambassadors without his permission, a stance they say hamstrung British preparations for the Afghan withdrawal
•It was claimed the Foreign Office crisis centre is itself in crisis, with thousands of unread emails from people trying to get safe passage out of Afghanistan
•Raab was accused of not updating the “non-combatant evacuation plan” for Afghanistan in the weeks before US troops pulled out
•Raab was branded a “control freak” by cabinet colleagues, who said he had set up a system to micromanage decisions that collapsed in his absence.
One minister said that Raab’s time standing in for Johnson, when the prime minister was in hospital with coronavirus last year, “broke his brain” and led him to try to control too much, slowing down critical decision making.
“When he had to deputise for the PM he saw the whole picture and I don’t think he’s been able to rewind to just be the foreign secretary,” the minister said.
“In Dom’s head everything is his responsibility. Everything has to go through him. His control freakery is off the scale. He can’t bear to take a decision without the full information. He’s Theresa May on speed.”
Raab was told to come home after a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on August 13. Those present at the meeting say he was “obsessed with the airport” in Kabul, and spent most of his time talking about the logistical issues for evacuation, including plane timetables, rather than the consular work of processing visas.
“Dom and the Foreign Office seemed very focused on the airbase and air operations rather than the diplomacy of the situation,” said a source. “That raised quite a few eyebrows because frankly there are better qualified people to be worrying about that. He doesn’t need to be worried about air traffic controllers and the air base.
“When there was talk about the international diplomatic effort it seemed that people like Michael [Gove] had given more thought to it than he had.”
Allies defended Raab, saying he was a meticulous minister who works harder than anyone in government. They pointed out that his media operation was hamstrung last week by the absence of his experienced special adviser Robert Oxley, who was on honeymoon.
The foreign secretary was already under fire for refusing a request from his own officials to put in a call to the Afghan foreign minster Mohammed Haneef Atmar. Responsibility was instead delegated to Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, another Foreign Office minister. But it was Lord Ahmad, whose responsibilities cover South Asia, who was Atmar’s main point of contact in government over the past year as peace talks were under way in Doha between the Taliban and Afghan government.