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‘Total rhubarb’: Boris Johnson again denies he ordered Afghan animal airlift as fresh emails emerge

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Boris Johnson has dismissed new evidence that he ordered the controversial evacuation of dogs and cats from Afghanistan for Pen Farthing’s Nowzad charity as “total rhubarb”.

Emails showing that officials had said the prime minister had “authorised” the evacuation of animals from Kabul contradicted Mr Johnson’s previous denials of involvement.

The PM doubled down on Thursday when asked if he had helped to get the animals out, telling reporters: “No, that is… this whole thing is total rhubarb.”

On a visit to north Wales, Mr Johnson said he was “very proud of what our armed services did with Operation Pitting”, adding: “I can tell you that the military always prioritised human beings and that was quite right.”

But, as he was talking, further leaked correspondence was published suggesting that No 10 and the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab had been involved in the decision.

The BBC reported another email from the same day, which said Mr Raab was “seeking a steer from No 10 on whether” to call Nowzad staff forward.

Another email from Nigel Casey, the prime minister’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, showed Mr Casey asking the national security adviser “to seek clear guidance for us from No 10 asap on what they would like us to do”.

Whistle-blowers and MPs criticised the airlift of 173 animals being looked after by Nowzad on the grounds that it drew on capacity at Kabul airport that could have been used to rescue people.

Emails provided by whistle-blower Raphael Marshall to the Foreign Affairs Committee show that one Foreign Office official told colleagues working on the evacuation on 25 August that “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.

Further evidence pointing to Mr Johnson’s involvement emerged on Thursday, including in a report by Sky News that Tory MP Trudy Harrison, Mr Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary, had contacted a private charter company to secure a plane for the evacuation of the animals and staff.

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 that she had told staff of her role working with the prime minister, but insisted he had not been involved in any evacuation plans.

A previously leaked letter showed that Ms Harrison, who is the MP for Copeland, had written to Mr Farthing on 25 August to inform him that the evacuation could go ahead.

Mr Farthing’s friend Dom Dyer, who helped campaign to get the animals evacuated, told the BBC on Thursday: “There’s no question that the prime minister was involved, had oversight, had an interest.”

Mr Dyer said he had been in touch with Ms Harrison at the time of the push to get the animals out. He said the MP “was definitely keeping the prime minister in the loop through the processes we were doing”.

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.

Peers called on Zac Goldsmith to explain why his office sent the email last August – shared with the Foreign Affairs Committee – saying that the PM had “just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.

Labour peer Ray Collins asked Lord Goldsmith, who was not present to answer an urgent question on the matter in the Lords on Thursday, “to return as a matter of urgency to make a statement to the house”.

Lord Goldsmith has denied discussing the Nowzad charity, or its efforts to evacuate animals, with Mr Johnson, tweeting: “I did not authorise and do not support anything that would have put animals’ lives ahead of peoples’.”

Meanwhile, cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the controversy over the airlift of cats and dogs from Afghanistan as “fussing about a few animals”.

The Commons leader said on Thursday that Labour was focusing on “fripperies and trivia” by asking questions about the prime minister’s role in the evacuation for Nowzad.

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.”

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said he had “had no involvement in the Pen Farthing evacuation, as we have said previously”. A spokesperson for Mr Raab declined to comment.

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