'Total Rhubarb': BoJo Denies Having Part in Afganistan Animal Rescue Operation as New Emails Emerge
05:49 GMT 28.01.2022 (Updated: 15:18 GMT 28.05.2023)
© AFP 2023 / TOLGA AKMENBritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face covering to stop the spread of coronavirus, carries his notes in a ministerial folder as he leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on December 15, 2021, to take part in the weekly session of Prime Minister Questions (PMQs) at the House of Commons
© AFP 2023 / TOLGA AKMEN
Despite Boris Johnson last year dismissing reports about the prioritisation of a charter flight carrying animals out of Kabul during August's chaotic evacuation as "complete nonsense", emails released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday suggested the UK Prime Minister’s direct involvement in approving the flight out of Afghanistan.
Boris Johnson has brushed off accusations that he prioritised the airlift of pets and animals out of Afghanistan during last year’s massive evacuation effort.
“This whole thing is total rhubarb. I can tell you that the military always prioritised human beings and that was quite right," stated the UK Prime Minister during a visit to North Wales on Thursday.
The statement echoed his response to the claims last year, when he told reporters in December that they were "complete nonsense".
However, freshly leaked emails cited by Sky News appear to question the PM’s account of events in August 2021 during the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan. Correspondence between Johnson’s top parliamentary aide, Trudy Harrison, and managers of British airline Virgin Atlantic shows Harrison saying that the transport secretary would "provide whatever assistance is needed" to get the animals out and that her efforts had the backing of the government.
Harrison was requesting help from Virgin Atlantic to secure a plane to make the trip – something that she subsequently failed to do.
An email dated 23 August between two senior staffers at Virgin Atlantic states:
"My local MP, Trudy Harrison, is PPS to the PM and has sought my advice this evening on the mechanics of transportation of a Mr Farthing and his Afghanistan based rescue dogs and cats plus other evacuees from Kabul imminently. She has said relevant permissions would be fast-tracked in government."
A second email underscores that Harrison purportedly has full government backing for her intervention.
"My local MP Trudy Harrison (who is Boris Johnson's PPS and works at No 10) has enquired of me yesterday evening whether we can provide transportation for Mr Pen Farthing and his rescue animals and others from Kabul... She has said the transportation secretary will provide whatever assistance is required. This being a government-backed situation and clearly incredibly sensitive I trust it's in order to bring it to your attention in case you wish to deal with it personally yourself," reads the exchange.
The PM’s aide is shown to have emailed Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss on the 24 August, a day before she approached a private charter company for help to find an alternative plane. Funding for the charter flight Harrison tried to arrange on 25 August was reportedly to be provided by a US philanthropist.
Harrison says in the correspondence that "we are keen to engage in early preparedness as this is a more complex and particularly high profile operation". The aide adds that flight codes from UK defence would be needed and "we very much hope [they] will be forthcoming, subject to an effective process prioritising those in most urgent need".
This yet again appears to contradict earlier statements by Downing Street that the PM had "no role" in authorising the airlift in question.
Animals and pets from the Nowzad charity run by former Royal Marine commando Paul "Pen" Farthing in Afghanistan were eventually airlifted on a plane provided by a separate Polish charter company. Staff were helped to flee the country, taken over by the Taliban* Islamist group, via a land route.
"I was assisting Pen Farthing and Nowzad as a constituency MP in response to many Copeland constituents' requests to assist. I was contacted directly by over 40 constituents last summer asking for my support for the charity's staff and animals. As part of my efforts to help them, I reached out to a pilot in my constituency for some advice," Trudy Harrison was cited by Sky News as saying.
26 January 2022, 14:08 GMT
Further evidence of No 10’s involvement in the aforementioned animal airlift from Kabul is seen in several messages cited by BBC's Newsnight. Thus, an email from Rachel King, an aide to then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab shows her referred to Raab as “seeking a steer from No 10 on whether to call them forward now” to board a plane out of Kabul.
Another email, from Nigel Casey, the Prime Minister's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, shows him saying that UK National Security Adviser Stephen Lovegrove was advised “to seek clear guidance for us from No 10 asap on what they would like us to do”.
The purported roles of Carrie Johnson, the PM’s wife, and her friend, Foreign Office Minister Zac Goldsmith, have also been questioned. Last December volunteer Dominic Dyer told LBC radio, “I know Carrie Johnson” and claimed he had lobbied her directly to help the 170 animals and their handlers flee Kabul.
© REUTERS / No 10 Downing Street / British PM Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson hold virtual call at ChequersBritish PM Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson hold virtual call at Chequers
British PM Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson hold virtual call at Chequers
© REUTERS / No 10 Downing Street / British PM Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson hold virtual call at Chequers
Mrs Johnson is believed to have denied speaking to anyone from Nowzad about the airlift rescue or speaking to the PM about it.
Boris Johnson, whose Tory leadership hangs in the balance in anticipation of a Cabinet Office report into allegations of COVID-19 lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, faced fresh backlash over the animal airlift story on Wednesday. New leaked emails released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, conducting an inquiry into the government's handling of the Afghanistan crisis, disclosed communications suggesting that the PM did personally authorise rescue efforts for pets and animals.
© Photo : UK Parliament website screenshotUK Parliament website screenshot
UK Parliament website screenshot
© Photo : UK Parliament website screenshot
The first piece of correspondence, released by the Committee as part of its broader investigation of the Afghanistan debacle, is dated 25 August 2021, was sent by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs with responsibility for the Pacific Zac Goldsmith and addressed to an official in the Foreign Secretary's private office (name redacted).
"[Animal charity – name redacted] are a [details redacted] animal charity operating in Kabul and seeking to evacuation [sic] their [details redacted] members of staff (no animals). Equivalent charity Nowzad, run by an ex-Royal Marine, has received a lot of publicity and the PM has authorized their staff and animals to be evacuated, [animal charity – name redacted] are hoping to be treated in the same capacity," it reads.
A second email, from an unnamed Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office employee, also on 25 August, and addressed to an official in the Foreign Secretary's private office, also points to the PM's direct involvement.
"In light of the PM's decision earlier today to evacuate the staff of the Nowzad animal charity, the [animal charity - name redacted] (another animal rights NGO) is asking for agreement to the entry of [details redacted], all Afghan nationals," the appeal reads.
The emails appear to confirm allegations made earlier by former Foreign Office official-turned whistleblower Raphael Marshall on the prioritisation of animals over people during the the UK's evacuation from Afghanistan in August, codenamed Operation Pitting.
© REUTERS / US MARINESUK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 20, 2021
UK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 20, 2021
© REUTERS / US MARINES
The Prime Minister's official spokesman responded to the leaked emails by saying:
“It's not uncommon in Whitehall for decisions 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, but that's our understanding of what's happened in this instance.”
*The Taliban is an organisation sanctioned by the UN for terrorist activities.