Boris Johnson 'absolutely' has full confidence in Dominic Raab over handling of Afghanistan crisis

Does the PM's backing mean Dominic Raab's job is safe? ITV News Politics Reporter Shehab Khan explores

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he “absolutely” has full confidence in Dominic Raab as the foreign secretary faces calls to resign over his decision not to make a phone call to his Afghan counterpart.

Asked whether he had full confidence in Mr Raab after he decided not to call the Afghan foreign minister about the evacuation of Afghan translators who had helped UK forces while on holiday, the Prime Minister said: “Absolutely.

“And I can tell you that the whole of the Government has been working virtually around the clock to do what we can to sort it out, to deal with a situation that has been long in gestation and to make sure we get as many people back as possible.”

Boris Johnson says he 'absolutely' has full confidence in Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab

He also defended Raab, saying that not calling the Afghan foreign minister on Friday did not slow down the evacuation programme.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are all demanding the Foreign Secretary quit his post after it emerged the call with Hanif Atmar was never made, with reports suggesting he was too busy on holiday to attend to the crisis.

As a rebuke to the accusations, in a statement released on Friday, Mr Raab said the call to the Afghan foreign minister had to be delegated to a more junior minister, as he had to focus on the deteriorating security situation at Kabul airport.

"On Friday afternoon, 13 August, advice was put to my Private Office (around 6pm Afghan time) recommending a call to the Afghan Foreign Minister. This was quickly overtaken by events.

"The call was delegated to a Minister of State because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the Director and the Director General overseeing the crisis response," the statement read.

Describing the government's response to priorities airport security as "the right one", Raab said the approach meant 204 UK nationals and their families, as well as Afghan staff and other countries citizens, were evacuated.

The foreign minister has rejected calls to resign after reports emerged of him being “unavailable” when officials in his department suggested he “urgently” call Afghan foreign minister.

It comes as the prime minister hosted a COBRA meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the worsening situation in Afghanistan.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaving 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Johnson said he disagreed “very strongly” with the suggestion that the government lacks interest in the matter, after the foreign secretary delegated the call to a junior colleague.

He added: “The whole government is working as hard as we can to make sure we not only extract those whom we owe debts of honour and obligation, but we get out the UK-eligible persons and we co-ordinate with our friends and partners around Europe but also in the region to make sure that of all the possible futures of Afghanistan – some of them pretty grim, others potentially much less grim – we help the people of Afghanistan to choose the best possible future.”

Mr Johnson said the government is workings "as fast as we can" and noted that 1,000 people were evacuated on Thursday, and another 1,000 on Friday.

Defence minister James Heappey told ITV News: "I can tell you that that phone call would not have made a difference, to two things."

'I can tell you, that phone call would not have made a difference,' James Heappey said

"Neither would it have made a difference to the trajectory of the speed of collapse of the Afghan government," he said.

"Nor, importantly, would it have made any difference to the speed at which we enacted our longstanding evacuation plan."

The defence minister, who himself served in Afghanistan, said the chaos engulfing the country makes him "feel sick", as the thousands of British troops who fought in the conflict worked hard to stabilise security for the Afghan people.

"In my former life as a soldier I spent two very challenging tours in Afghanistan, and just like everybody else who has served, you find yourself asking well was it worth it?

"And I reassure myself that back then in 2009 I was not thinking about Afghanistan in August 2021," he said. 

Defence minister James Heappey says the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan makes him feel sick

After footage emerged of desperate scenes of civilians attempting to flee from Kabul airport, Mr Heappey added he is anxious to ensure as many people are rescued as quickly as possible.

He said: "I also feel sick because I am currently the minister for the armed forces- a member of the government charged with the operational output of the MOD and we have to make sure every single minute is used to best effect in order to get as many people out as quickly as possible."

ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine is in Kabul, where the Taliban now rule

This video contains distressing images

Backing his Conservative colleague, James Cleverly, MP for Braintree, Essex, said Mr Raab was a "workaholic" who took his ministerial duties extremely seriously.

Labour, however, branded the government's handling of the situation an "unforgivable failure of leadership," as it demanded details of its response.

The call, to Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar, was never made by Mr Raab when requested on August 13 – two days before the Taliban marched on Kabul.

It was reported on Thursday the Afghan foreign ministry refused to arrange a call with a junior minister, pushing it back to the next day.

The call, therefore, never took place.

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The Times reported Sir Philip Barton, Matthew Rycroft and David Williams, the respective permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence, were on holiday amid the evacuations from Afghanistan.

Shadow security minister Conor McGinn said that the departmental culture is set by those in position of power, suggesting that the absent Foreign Office officials took their cue from Mr Raab's break to Crete.

"If the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are missing in action then it stands to reason that that will filter down through the organisation and that others will be absent too," he told ITV News.

Conor McGinn said it was a mistake for the permanent secretaries not to be at work this week

It is understood the senior officials continued to work on Afghanistan while on leave, with the Whitehall departments running systems where there is another minister or an acting permanent secretary to cover periods of leave.

Labour said it is requesting specifics on when Mr Raab was out of the country and on leave from official duties, if he received advice from officials on the advisability of leaving as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, if he attended a Cobra meeting on August 15, and if other ministers were authorised to approve those intelligence operations designated urgent in his absence.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “For the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to be on holiday during the biggest foreign policy crisis in a generation is an unforgivable failure of leadership”.

Flights carrying evacuees from Afghanistan arrives at Brize Norton on Tuesday night. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, senior MPs have warned the government must ensure it meets its responsibility towards UK-linked workers “pursued into hiding” by Taliban forces.

The government has announced Britain will take up to 20,000 people wanting to exit Afghanistan as part of its resettlement scheme, with 5,000 due to be accepted in the next 12 months.

That pledge has been blasted as inadequate.