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Dominic Raab’s position as foreign secretary is under threat after it emerged that he rejected advice from his officials to phone his Afghan counterpart last Friday to urge him to allow translators who have worked for the UK to board flights without passports.
Raab had the misfortune to be on holiday at a five-star resort in Crete. But he also showed misjudgment that has quickly come back to haunt him. The call to Hanif Atmar was made by Raab’s junior minister Zac Goldsmith, who is much better known for his other job as an environment minister. Raab insists he was busy making other calls from his holiday hotel. But as Keir Starmer woundingly observed in yesterday’s heated Commons debate: “You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach.”
Today Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, argued that Raab’s missed call would not have made “a blind bit of difference” because the Afghan government was “melting away quicker than ice” and the priority at the time was safeguarding Kabul’s airport. Privately, Wallace and his officials are said to be angry that their servicemen have had to process those trying to flee the country at the airport because Foreign Office diplomats initially left (though the ambassador, Laurie Bristow, remained). So Raab is under fire on more than one front.
There is consternation inside the Conservative Party, which extends to Downing Street, that Raab did not return to London more quickly; he was not back until the early hours of Monday. Labour scents blood, and is calling his position into question, accusing him of a “dereliction of duty.” The Daily Mail, which revealed that Raab’s officials urged him to call Atmar “urgently,” says in its editorial today: “Dominic Raab should seriously consider his position.”
This gives Boris Johnson a dilemma he could do without. At first glance, he is not in a strong position to lecture Raab as he began a holiday in Somerset on Saturday. But the prime minister’s antennae were working better than Raab’s and he returned to Downing Street on Sunday.
Johnson’s instinct, for now at least, will probably be to leave Raab in place. The foreign secretary does have some credit in the bank; he won plaudits from fellow ministers and Number 10 aides for the collegiate way he held the fort, due to his title of first secretary of state, when Johnson was admitted to hospital with coronavirus last year. Johnson might think that a mini-reshuffle now would be a distraction when the government is trying to salvage something from the wreckage of his Afghanistan policy by mobilising other countries to put pressure on the Taliban regime. Raab is chairing a virtual meeting of G7 foreign ministers today to discuss evacuation plans.
However, the foreign secretary’s position could deteriorate if, as ministers rightly fear, it becomes clear that some of the Afghans who helped the British operation do not manage to leave the country. Raab’s credit could then run out very quickly; he could become a scapegoat for the growing accusations of government incompetence over the pullout, even though the fundamental decision was taken by Joe Biden. In the Commons debate, the anger among many Tory MPs was directed at both governments.
More likely as things stand is that Raab soldiers on and, perhaps under orders from Downing Street, shows a little more contrition about his slow response to fast-moving events.
However, this affair will open up new options for Johnson when he finally conducts an overdue cabinet reshuffle – either shortly after the Cop26 climate summit in November or early next year. Raab might have expected to remain in place. But now, at the very least, there will be a black mark against his name, and Johnson might take the resulting opportunity to move him. Unpredictable and tragic developments 4,600 miles away outside the government’s control might determine Raab’s fate.