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Boris Johnson has again been accused of lying to the public after new evidence emerged suggesting he personally authorised the controversial evacuation of 173 dogs and cats from Afghanistan.
The prime minister was accused of “stumbling from one scandal to the next” after an internal government email contradicted his claims that he hadn’t intervened to prioritise the animal airlift last August.
The new controversy comes as the PM awaits the results of the Sue Gray inquiry into whether he broke lockdown rules at Downing Street and lied about them.
In an email to a Foreign Office’s team managing part of the evacuation, an official, whose name is redacted, says that the animal charity Nowzad has “received a lot of publicity” and that “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.
On the same day as the email was sent, Trudy Harrison, Mr Johnson's parliamentary private secretary, contacted a private charter company - funded by a private sponsor - to secure a plane for the evacuation of animals and staff, Sky News reports.
A source at the company was reported as saying Ms Harrison was keen to get press on the plane in order to make the evacuation a good news story. They said she kept talking about "the boss" and that it felt obvious her request came with his backing.
Ms Harrison admitted to the broadcaster she told staff of her role working with the prime minister, but insisted he was not involved in any evacuation plans.
Mr Johnson had previously said on 7 December last year that it was “complete nonsense” that he had intervened to have the animals evacuated and that he had “no influence on that particular case”. He added: “Nor would that be right.”
Minister Zac Goldsmith had also told the House of Lords that the prime minister’s claims were “entirely accurate” – suggesting he may have misled parliament.
Opposition politicians queued up to accused the prime minister of having yet again lied – as his political future lies in the balance. John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said that the prime minister had “once again” 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,” Mr Healey argued.
“Boris Johnson is unable to make the serious decisions that are needed, at home and for our allies abroad. In this case people were fleeing in terror as the Taliban took over Kabul and British Forces were putting their lives at risk, the prime minister was once again prioritising the wrong things and making the wrong calls. We need to know why the PM overruled the defence secretary with this decision.”
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesperson, said the episode illustrated that the prime minister was not “fit for office”, telling reporters: “It’s not just on parties that the PM’s statements don’t stand up to scrutiny. This damning revelation shows that Boris Johnson has once again repeatedly lied to the British people.
“The prime minister claimed that he didn’t intervene to authorise the evacuation of Nowzad animals and staff from Kabul. Now it turns out he did. Boris Johnson’s house of cards continues to come tumbling down. He must immediately make a public statement to correct the record and for once tell the truth. This is not a man who is fit for office. He is dragging our nation’s reputation into the gutter with him and should resign.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who objected to the move at the time, raised a point of order in the Commons about the matter and said the prime minister should come to parliament and answer questions about the episode.
“Either a government minister in the Foreign Office has lied, or the prime minister has lied,” Mr Bryant, chair of the Commons standards committee, said.
“I merely note that the prime minister himself said in PMQs that the ministerial code applies to him. And if somebody has lied then they do need to resign … The prime minister should come to the house tomorrow and answer questions on it.”
The Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle said that ministers “are encouraged to correct inadvertently incorrect statements made to the house as quickly as possible if such a mistake has occurred”.
With an eye on Sue Gray’s delayed report, the Scottish National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith said Boris Johnson was “stumbling from one scandal to the next”.
“How many revelations can we have that contradict the prime minister’s stated position before we discount every word he says?” he asked.
“The leaked redacted excerpts from these emails seem to give the lie to Mr Johnson’s denial of any personal intervention in getting cats and dogs in Afghanistan to safety before people. If true, this raises serious questions for the UK government.”
Mr Smith added that there were “countless cases of people in Afghanistan, including those who helped UK armed forces and those at real risk of Taliban reprisals, being left behind”. The SNP politician said the PM’s claim to have been “prioritising the evacuation of people” was now “deeply questionable”.
Asked about the claims on Wednesday, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “It remains the case that the PM didn’t instruct officials to take any particular course of action.”
A No 10 spokesperson added: “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.”
Lord Goldsmith, in whose private office the official who sent the email worked, said in a statement released on Wednesday afternoon: “I did not authorise and do not support anything that would have put animals’ lives ahead of people’s.”
The failed Tory London mayoral candidate turned life peer added: “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 prime minister.”
Ms Harrison confirmed to Sky News that she contacted private companies about the evacuation but said she did so “as a constituency MP”. She was said to have admitted telling staff she was Mr Johnson’s PPS but said he was not involved in any evacuation plans.
The government has been criticised by whistleblowers and MPs for prioritising the cats and dogs amid claims that they diverted limited resources on the ground from evacuating people. The charity's founder, former royal marine Pen Farthing, denies these claims.
Though the charity chartered its own plane and put the animals in the hold, civil servants and MPs with knowledge of the operation on the ground said the capacity constraint at the airport was a limited number of soldiers able to escort people into the airport.
In December, whistle-blower Raphael Marshall told MPs that the Foreign Office received “an instruction from the prime minister” to use “considerable capacity” to help Farthing. At the time, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, himself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, also criticised the decision to airlift the dogs and cats.
“There’s quite a lot of space on the aeroplanes, they’re coming and going relatively easily,” he had told LBC radio. “The difficulty is getting people into and out of the airport and we’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs, meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed.”
Reacting to the latest news, defence secretary Ben Wallace, who was in charge at the time of the operation, said in a statement that “at no point” was he directed by the prime minister to “evacuate Pen Farthing, his workforce or his pets” from Afghanistan.
In a statement, Mr Wallace said: “The evacuation of Kabul under Operation Pitting was run under my authority and delivered by the UK military through the chief of joint operations.
“At no point were he or I directed by the prime minister to evacuate Pen Farthing, his workforce or his pets. As I made clear at the time, we were not going to put pets before people and as the actions showed, Pen Farthing left last and his workforce had to leave after the evacuation was concluded via other means.
“The evacuation was a Ministry of Defence-led operation, supported by application processing by the Home Office and FCDO.”
Mr Wallace said it was “ludicrous” to believe that the official, in Lord Goldsmith’s private office, “had any authority or responsibility in the running of the evacuation”.
But the defence secretary added: “I am however aware of false claims made throughout by Nowzad that led to considerable distress and distraction to those trying to save lives in very difficult circumstances.”
In a four-page submission to the committee which released the emails, Mr Farthing said that “no HMG capacity was used to transport any animals” and that Nowzad “never ever asked anyone to prioritise our staff”.
And in a follow-up statement, the charity 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.”