Dominic Raab faces mounting pressure to resign after it emerged a phone call requested by his officials to help interpreters flee Afghanistan was not made.
The foreign secretary was reportedly “unavailable” when officials in his department suggested he “urgently” call Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar on August 13 – two days before the Taliban marched on Kabul – to arrange help for those who supported British troops.
It was initially reported the Afghan Foreign Ministry refused to arrange a call with a junior minister, pushing it back to the next day.
But a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson later said: “Given the rapidly changing situation, it was not possible to arrange a call before the Afghan government collapsed.”
Raab was holidaying on the Greek island of Crete and said to be staying at the five-star “luxury” Amirandes Hotel when the request for the call was made.
The Times also reported that 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.
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.
But Labour has demanded details about the Government’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan and the Foreign Secretary’s holiday while Kabul fell to the Taliban.
It has set out a list of 18 urgent questions for the Foreign Secretary to answer about his trip and his department’s handling of the crisis.
Asked about Raab’s actions, defence minister James Heappey said people at all levels in the UK Government are “working their backsides off” to evacuate people.
He told Sky News: “I don’t know the exact details of the Foreign Office ministers’ call sheets.
“What I can tell you, as the Secretary of State (Ben Wallace) said yesterday, is I know that no one phone call would have been decisive in changing the trajectory – either for the collapse of the Afghan government or indeed the acceleration of the airlift.”
Heappey added he could only comment on what he sees in his meetings and via his phone calls.
He said: “What I see is that from the Prime Minister to secretaries of state to my junior ministerial colleagues around government to senior civil servants, all the way down to the brave volunteer civil servants who have gone forward to Kabul … is people across Her Majesty’s Government working their backsides off in order to get people out.”
On reports contract staff who protected the British embassy were receiving no protection themselves, Mr Heappey said: “If you’re referring to the GardaWorld staff who protect the embassy, I can tell you they have arrived at the airport this morning and we’ll be moving them out later today.”
Heappey also confirmed 963 people have been evacuated from Kabul on the RAF “air bridge” in the last 24 hours.
For Labour, 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.”
Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have all called for Mr Raab to either quit or be sacked by the Prime Minister.
Elsewhere, senior MPs have warned the Government must ensure it meets its responsibility towards UK-linked workers “pursued into hiding” by Taliban forces.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and Conservative Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, warned the scope of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was “too narrow”.
In a letter to the Home Secretary, they urged Priti Patel to provide more resources to support the issuing of visas to ensure those trying to leave Afghanistan do not face administrative delays which would be “unforgivable at this dangerous time”.