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Letter suggests PM’s involvement in Nowzad evacuation, despite No 10 denials

·7 min read

Boris Johnson’s former parliamentary aide wrote to Paul “Pen” Farthing confirming his staff and animals could be evacuated from Afghanistan, it has been claimed, despite the PM insisting allegations he intervened were “complete nonsense”.

A Foreign Office whistleblower alleged on Tuesday 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.

Downing Street said the allegations that the Prime Minister ordered the rescue of animals from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover were “entirely untrue”.

But a leaked letter from Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, who was then Parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Mr Johnson, has surfaced where on August 25, 2020, she informs Mr Farthing 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”.

And a colleague of Mr Farthing claimed Ms Harrison was part of the “campaign team” advocating for the charity.

Any animals under the care of the charity, Nowzad, could be “evacuated on a separate chartered flight” which would be “made available” by the Ministry of Defence, according to Ms Harrison’s letter read out by Labour MP Chris Bryant at a hearing of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr Bryant added: “It feels very much like a direction from the Prime Minister to me, I have to say.”

He added: “The Prime Minister’s fingers are all over this, aren’t they?

“I’m hesitant to use the word cover-up, but that’s what it feels like.”

In a response to the leaked letter, a No 10 spokeswoman said: “This was an operational decision.

“Neither the PM nor Mrs Johnson were involved.

“This letter was nothing to do with Ms Harrison’s role as the PM’s PPS, she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP.”

Former Royal Marine Mr Farthing, who ran the Nowzad shelter, 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 rescue effort.

And 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 earlier told reporters: “That’s complete nonsense.”

But 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.”

It has previously been alleged that Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife, also intervened to ensure the animals were transported to the UK.

Taliban Resurgence in Afghanistan
Workers for the Nowzad charity arriving in the UK from Islamabad

Mr Dyer told LBC: “Obviously I knew Carrie Johnson, I made it clear my concerns to her, no doubt she spoke to him (the Prime Minister).”

Asked whether he had gone directly to Mrs Johnson, he said: “Yes, yes. Carrie Johnson took the message forward, not just through me but through the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.”

And he told Times Radio that the pressure he put on the PM had led to Nowzad being bumped up a priority list, which had included military advisers and supporters of the fallen Afghan government.

He said: “The Prime Minister took a decision, because of huge public pressure and awareness and a recognition that these people could work in Britain, there was jobs for them, that there were young women that were under threat if were left behind.

“There was massive public political support to get them out. He took a decision to say actually, OK, we’ll put these people on the priority list and get them to a point where they can actually get on the evacuation.”

He added: “Carrie Johnson has a very good eye for the media, she knew that this was a very good story, she realised that actually if the people and animals came out, it would be a good story emerging from this disastrous evacuation process.”

Conservative Party Conference
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie (Peter Byrne/PA)

And he said Mr Johnson’s PSS Ms Harrison was “on our campaign team directly speaking to the Prime Minister day in day out on this issue as it went along”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Johnson were involved” in the matter.

He said: “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 spokesman said: “They departed on their own charter flight right towards the end of the evacuation window because we were prioritising people over animals.”

But 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.

At the select committee hearing on Tuesday, Conservative MP Bob Seely, who referred to Mr Farthing as the “Nowzad Noah”, asked whether there was a “ministerial instruction, or a instruction from on high” in order to prioritise animals over “Afghans who would have served with us”.

FCDO permanent-under secretary Sir Philip Barton replied: “There was no prioritisation of animals over people.”

Nigel Casey, the Prime Minister’s special representative for Afghanistan, said: “There was clearly a ministerial-level decision to help by, in the narrow sense, agreeing that the UK military would facilitate the landing and departure of the charter aircraft, which Pen Farthing’s organisation had chartered.”

Mr Casey added: “What needed to be done, to secure flight clearance for Pen Farthing’s aircraft, which was done I believe at the direction of the Defence Secretary – quite properly, because it was the military who were running the evacuation operation and had to execute that.”

Asked whether it was Ben Wallace who had given the direction for the armed forces to help the animal sanctuary, Mr Casey said: “In the narrow sense of the military facilitation of the charter aircraft, which Nowzad themselves had chartered.”

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