It’s getting to be something of a habit. Every morning a minister gets sent out to face the national media and every morning he or she crashes and burns. For much of the last week it’s been the No 10 party everyone but No 10 seems to know took place that’s been the problem. Tuesday’s disaster, though, was a welcome change for Boris Johnson. It was a disaster almost all of Dominic Raab’s own making.
In his newly demoted role of justice secretary, Raab had hoped to be talking about a new “get tough” prisons policy. Instead he was subjected to a stream of questions about his laissez-faire approach to helping Afghans escape to the UK while in charge of the Foreign Office after the release of Raphael Marshall’s whistleblowing report to the foreign affairs committee. Raab is on a short fuse at the best of times – just check out the unidentified bodies in the Thames – and you could sense the anger vein pulsing through the airwaves as Nick Robinson gave him the run around on Radio 4’s Today programme.
How come we had only repatriated 15,000 Afghans? Raab bristled. That was actually quite a lot, he said. More than any other country except the US. Robinson wondered if he was dealing with an idiot. That was because we had many more people to whom we had promised help. And we had only managed to get a fraction out of the country.
It all went down hill from there. Raab was adamant that most Afghans couldn’t be allowed into the UK because they didn’t have the right documentation. Largely because we hadn’t supplied it. And he was making no apologies for having wanted the spreadsheet of applicants correctly filled in because it was quite hard to read under the glare of the sun on a Cretan beach when the sea was closed and he didn’t want to make mistakes.
Two to three hours to make a decision sounded quite reasonable to make a decision when you were a bit pissed after a couple of lunchtime mojitos. Plus it was absurd to suggest Marshall would have been left to read all the emails on his own. There was always one other person around to do the photocopying.
“So what lessons do you think you’ve learned,” Robinson asked for the seventh time in seven minutes. Raab couldn’t think of any. Other than not to be volunteered to do the government’s dirty work again any time soon. A decision that was reinforced when he turned up in the Sky studios to be asked by Kay Burley why he thought he had been sacked as foreign secretary if he had handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan so brilliantly. Boris telling him he needed a new challenge didn’t sound quite so convincing now he came to think about it.
Not necessarily to Raab’s advantage, it became all too clear that Dom was by no means the only senior member of the Foreign Office team to be dozing on the job when the foreign affairs committee took evidence from Laurie Bristow, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, and Philip Barton, the top civil servant in the Foreign Office. While Bristow came across as diligent and prepared to go the extra mile, Barton was just a walking disaster area. A total shambles. To call him unimpressive really doesn’t begin to do him justice. If he really is the best our civil service can produce it’s a wonder we haven’t gone to war with almost everyone. Out of carelessness, if nothing else.
Tom Tugendhat, the committee chair, opened with some tough questions on Marshall’s leaked document. How many people had the Foreign Office expected to evacuate from Afghanistan? 7,000, Barton replied confidently. He was unable to account for why the UK had managed to airlift 15,000 to safety while still leaving up to 10 times that number behind.
Then there was very little for which he could offer an explanation. Thousands of emails unanswered? Just normal Foreign Office practice. Did the committee have any idea how many emails the FO got each day? You couldn’t possibly expect staff to answer them all and still get to knock off at five o’clock every afternoon.
What followed was a cross-party pile on. A very cross party. There was no split on party lines: each committee member was furious about what had been leaked to them. Barton soon made things worse by telling everyone that he had only come back from holiday on the 26 August – 11 days after the fall of Kabul.
On reflection, he said, he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. But he didn’t think it would have made any difference if he had come back. Partly because he was so useless and partly because he was so forgettable, staff had no idea who he was. Though he could assure everyone the crisis centre had been adequately staffed at all times. How he knew, given he wasn’t there, was never explained.
Then we came to the mystery of how the stray dogs managed to get the last flight out of Kabul. The rumours were that the order had come direct from the prime minister’s wife via No 10. How was this possible, asked Tory Alicia Kearns. How could some animals get priority over people?
This wasn’t what had happened, said Barton, who was by now reduced to shambling free association. No prime minister, minister or civil servant had chartered the plane. The Dogs of War had emailed London of their own accord to make the booking. And yes, it was a shame that some of those who wanted to be evacuated hadn’t shown the same level of initiative. The soldiers had questioned the dogs on their way into the airport, but been reassured when Gen Cockapoo had barked the necessary orders. How had the dogs found their long walk to freedom? Ruff!
Labour’s Chris Bryant injected an overdose of reality. He had just seen a copy of a letter sent by Trudy Harrison, the prime minister’s private secretary, to Pen Farthing which placed Johnson front and centre of the decision to evacuate the mutts.
It was almost as though a denial from No 10 was proof that something had happened. As with the parties for which ITV had just obtained video proof of No 10 staff joking about how to deny them. It was two gotcha moments that encapsulated the bankruptcy at the heart of this government. In any normal world there would be a spate of resignations. Starting with Johnson, Raab and Barton.
Barton mumbled something about not knowing anything about the thing he appeared to be covering up. Bryant merely repeated what was in the letter and Barton fell silent. This was about the high point of his testimony. It was as if he had taken psychotropic drugs that had short-circuited his two remaining brain cells and from then on he could only repeat himself in ever more defensive and staccato sentences. “On reflection,” he mumbled. “You’re beginning to sound platitudinous,” Tugendhat observed. Which was being kind.
The reality was far worse. It had actually been a stroke of luck that Johnson, Raab, Barton and his opposite numbers in the defence department and the Home Office had been on hols at the same time. If they’d all been in the UK, who knows how many more Afghans would have needlessly died.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.