Minister disputes evidence suggesting PM ‘authorised’ animal airlift from Kabul
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A Cabinet minister has suggested an official who said in a leaked email Boris Johnson approved the controversial airlift of animals from Afghanistan was acting in an unauthorised capacity.
Therese Coffey defended the Prime Minister after he was accused of lying over his involvement in evacuating cats and dogs with the Nowzad charity from Kabul.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly denied approving their airlift in the final days of the mission as thousands of people wanting to flee the Taliban were left behind.
But a newly-surfaced email shared with a Commons inquiry shows a Foreign Office official saying in August that the Prime Minister had just “authorised” the animals’ rescue.
Ms Coffey argued it is not uncommon for individuals working in Government to say Mr Johnson backs an issue when working on their own “pet projects”.
The Work and Pensions Secretary told LBC: “I’ve seen a screenshot of an email. Quite often it’s not unusual in Parliament and in Government for people to say… for their pet projects the PM has said it’s a priority.
“There are a lot of things we deliver as the Government, but the PM had no role in individual evacuations and the Defence Secretary said he was in charge of Operation Pitting in that regard.”
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed calls for a debate about the leaked evidence as “fussing about a few animals”.
Emails shared with the Foreign Affairs Committee show an official in Foreign Office minister Lord Goldsmith’s private office telling colleagues on August 25 that “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.
Another Foreign Office official referred to the “PM’s decision earlier today to evacuate the staff of the Nowzad animal charity” in a separate email sent on August 25.
They were submitted to the MPs by Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office at the time and alleges the animals were evacuated following an order from Mr Johnson.
This is despite the Prime Minister having previously described suggestions he had personally intervened as “complete nonsense”.
A previously leaked letter showed Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, then parliamentary private secretary to Mr Johnson, also hinted at involvement.
The MP for Copeland wrote to Nowzad founder Paul “Pen” Farthing on August 25 to inform him the evacuation could go ahead.
With it unclear how the charity is connected to the Cumbrian constituency, Mr Marshall said No 10’s claim she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP was “not credible”.
He told the committee: “A request for the evacuation of Nowzad’s staff from Ms Harrison in her capacity as MP for Copeland would have been disregarded.”
In another development, Ms Harrison admitted contacting a private charter company in an attempt to secure a plane to transport Nowzad’s staff and animals.
A charter employee told Sky News the Tory MP contacted the unnamed firm on August 25, making clear she was working for the Prime Minister, repeatedly referring to him as “the boss”.
In a statement, Ms Harrison responded: “I was assisting Pen Farthing and Nowzad as a constituency MP in response to many Copeland constituents’ requests to assist.”
Another document released by the Commons committee showed Sir Philip Barton, the top civil servant in the Foreign Office, said he was “not aware” of any support from No 10 for the animal airlift.
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson played “no role” in authorising individual evacuations during the RAF rescue mission, Operation Pitting.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace 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.”
As Kabul fell to the Taliban, Mr Farthing launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out, using a plane funded through donations.
The Government sponsored clearance for the charter flight, leading to allegations that animals had been prioritised over people in the exit effort.
Dominic Dyer, an ally of Mr Farthing, has said he had spoken with ministers and Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie to “put pressure on him” over the evacuation.
On Thursday, Mr Dyer said he felt “vindicated” by the newly-released emails, adding: “I’m not certain why he didn’t feel he could explain his involvement in August at the end of this operation.”
Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “Once again, the Prime Minister has been caught out lying about what he has been doing and deciding.”
“He should never have given priority to flying animals out of Afghanistan while Afghans who worked for our armed forces were left behind.”