'Total rhubarb': Boris Johnson denies he intervened on Pen Farthing Nowzad evacuation

The PM is "adamant" he was not involved in the evacuation of animals out of Afghanistan, says ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks, but adds that Boris Johnson's choice of language in his denial was "quite strange".

Boris Johnson has denied reports he personally intervened during the UK's withdrawal from Afghanistan to help animals be evacuated from Kabul.

The prime minister said the claims were "total rhubarb" when asked about leaked emails from a Foreign Office official which suggested he had “authorised” their rescue.

Mr Johnson added: "I can tell you that the military always prioritised human beings and that was quite right."

He's been accused of lying by Labour over how animals looked after by the charity Nowzad had made their way to the UK during the evacuation of Kabul last year.

In leaked emails to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, one Foreign Office official told colleagues working on the evacuation on August 25 that “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”, in reference to Nowzad, the charity set up by former Royal Marine Pen Farthing.

Mr Johnson denies he had any part in the UK armed forces rescue mission, Operation Pitting, or the evacuation of animals from the Taliban-captured territory.

Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said he thinks "there's a story to come out" on the matter.

When asked if he was pleased the animals were evacuated from Kabul, Sir Lindsay, who has a collection of pets, replied: “Of course everybody knows I’m an animal lover, but I also love people as well.

“And what I would say is I think there’s a story to come out but it’s not for me to judge today.”

Speaker of the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was questioned on the reports:

In documents released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Sir Philip Barton – the Foreign Office’s permanent-under secretary – said he was “not aware” of support for the decision to evacuate Nowzad either in No 10 or from the prime minister, or whether there was any reason staff would attribute the decision to the PM, “beyond speculation in the public domain”.

Asked whether Nigel Casey, the prime minister’s special representative for Afghanistan, had received any correspondence referring to the PM’s intervention, Sir Philip said: “No.”

But it comes after a leaked letter from Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, who was then parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Mr Johnson, previously suggested the prime minister may have been involved as she wrote to Mr Farthing, who's from Plymouth, informing him that he and his staff – amounting to 68 people – “would be provided a flight by the Royal Air Force as part of the evacuation programme”.

Last month, No 10 said Ms Harrison was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP, however, the letter’s signature included her title as the prime minister’s PPS.

The PM insists he had "no influence" on the Pen Farthing case when questioned in August 2021

But on Wednesday, Sky News reported that Ms Harrison had contacted a private charter company to try to secure a plane to help with the Nowzad evacuation, and a source at the company said it was implicit that she was acting with the prime minister’s backing.

Ms Harrison told the broadcaster she had contacted companies, and had told staff she was a PPS to Mr Johnson, but that she was acting as a constituency MP and the prime minister was not involved in plans around the evacuation.

No 10 sought to blame officials for making it seem as if the prime minister had been involved in the Nowzad decision.

The PM's official spokesperson said: "It's not uncommon in Whitehall for decisions to be interpreted or portrayed as coming directly from the prime minister, even when that's not the case.

"And it's our understanding that's what happened in this instance. We appreciate it was a frenetic time for those officials dealing with this situation, but that's our understanding of what's happened in this instance."

Trudy Harrison outside the Houses of Parliament in London Credit: Jack Taylor/PA

Mr Farthing launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, using a plane funded through donations.

The UK government sponsored clearance for the charter flight, leading to allegations that animals had been prioritised over people in the exit effort.

Dominic Dyer, who led the political lobbying campaign from the UK for Nowzad to be offered support, has maintained the prime minister was involved.

He said: “I know Trudy Harrison, the PPS to the prime minister that was helping us on the campaign team, reached out to the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, and we were just looking at different options that were available to us.”

He said: “I’m not certain why he (the prime minister) didn’t feel he could explain his involvement in August at the end of this operation.

“It has tarnished what has been a very important operation that had huge public support.”