Boris Johnson has insisted a claim he intervened to order the rescue of animals from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover was “complete nonsense”.
A Foreign Office whistleblower alleged that Mr Johnson issued an instruction to save animals from the Nowzad shelter during the mass evacuation effort in August – potentially putting British troops’ lives at risk and preventing people from fleeing Kabul.
Former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, who ran the shelter, launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out, 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 rescue effort.
Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office at the time, claimed that the animals were evacuated following a direct instruction from Mr Johnson.
The Prime Minister told reporters: “That’s complete nonsense.”
However campaigner Dominic Dyer insisted he had called on the PM and his wife for help.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Dyer, a wildlife campaigner who supported Nowzad on a voluntary basis, said: “I forced the Prime Minister’s arm, I think all of us behind this campaign did.”
He said: “The next day, the senior commander in the Ministry of Defence, in the Air Force department, contacted me and said you can have your flight authorisation and we could get that plane down on the ground into Afghanistan.
“That’s my proof because without the intervention from the Prime Minister, (Defence Secretary Ben Wallace) would have continued to block the operation.”
He said Mr Wallace had performed a U-turn on allowing the airlift to take place, and added: “That’s because the Prime Minister intervened, under huge pressure after the G7 summit, I have no doubt Carrie Johnson gave him (the PM) a hard time.”
Mr Dyer said: “I went publicly on social media and said to the Prime Minister… and I did reach out to Carrie Symonds that evening, and some ministers I was in contact with, including (Lord) Zac Goldsmith to say ‘look, who’s in charge here?’”
It has previously been alleged that Mrs Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife, also intervened to ensure the animals were transported to the UK.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Johnson were involved” in the matter.
Mr Marshall told MPs there was “an instruction from the Prime Minister to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals”.
The PM’s spokesman said in response: “We’ve always prioritised people over animals, as we’ve said both during and subsequently.”
He added: “The Prime Minister’s focus was on saving and evacuating as many people as possible. That was the instruction that he gave to the whole of Government.”
Downing Street also insisted that giving clearance for a charter flight to rescue animals from Afghanistan “in no way distracted” from the Government’s commitment to evacuate people from the country.
The PM’s spokesperson said: “They departed on their own charter flight right towards the end of the evacuation window because we were prioritising people over animals.”
On whether giving clearance for a charter flight for animals amounted to prioritising them over people, the spokesman said: “We are confident that at all times we prioritised people over animals. We continued to evacuate people right up until the last possible moment.
“That’s just because of the commitment of military and Foreign Office staff that we did that. The approach we took (in) regards to that charter flight in no way distracted from that commitment.”
Mr Marshall said it was “not relevant” that Nowzad paid for the plane out of Afghanistan.
“The problem was not the lack of planes. The problem was lack of soldiers and lack of capacity at the airport,” he said.
In his evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Marshall said: “There was a direct trade-off between transporting Nowzad’s animals and evacuating British nationals and Afghans evacuees, including Afghans who had served with British soldiers.
“This is because soldiers tasked with escorting the dogs through the crowd and into the airport would by definition have otherwise been deployed to support the evacuation of British nationals or Afghans prioritised for evacuation, notably by helping families out of the dangerous crowd into the airport.”
He added: “I believe that British soldiers were put at risk in order to bring Nowzad’s animals into the airport.”
Mr Farthing said “not one single British soldier” was used to get him or Nowzad’s animals out of Afghanistan, and accused Mr Marshall of lying.