Dominic Raab has said he did not call Afghanistan’s foreign minister when he was on holiday as he was prioritising securing Kabul airport so that evacuation flights could depart.
Amid mounting criticism over the speed of his response to the Taliban’s takeover, the foreign secretary said in a statement on Friday the government has been “working tirelessly” to help people flee Afghanistan.
“On Friday afternoon, 13 August, advice was put to my private office (around 6pm Afghan time) recommending a call to the Afghan foreign minister. This was quickly overtaken by events,” it reads.
“The call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the director and the director general overseeing the crisis response.
“In any event, the Afghan foreign minister agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“The government’s approach to prioritise security at the airport was the right one. As a result, 204 UK nationals and their families, Afghan staff and other countries citizens were evacuated on the morning of Monday 16 August.”
Posting on social media, the foreign secretary said his statement was “responding to the inaccurate media reporting over recent days”.
Mr Raab is continuing to resist calls to resign as foreign secretary after he declined to speak with his Afghan counterpart while on holiday as the Taliban closed in on Kabul.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are mounting pressure on Mr Raab to depart his ministerial role and say Prime Minister Boris Johnson should sack the foreign secretary if he does not stand aside himself.
But Downing Street say they have “full confidence” in Mr Raab.
And asked by reporters on Thursday morning if he plans to resign over the matter, the foreign secretary replied: “No.”
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, defence minister James Heappey backed Mr Raab and said people at all levels in the UK government are “working their backsides off” to evacuate people.
But Labour say the foreign secretary’s position has become “untenable”.
Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw told Sky News he would never delegate a call with his Afghan counterpart to another minister.
“The world never sleeps and it doesn’t recognise British public holidays,” he said.
Earlier this week, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News that “not picking up the phone to the Afghan foreign minister seems to me to be absolutely shameful on the government’s part”.
In a statement released later, she added: “If Dominic Raab doesn’t have the decency to resign, the prime minister must show a shred of leadership and sack him.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner added: “Dominic Raab should resign. If he won’t resign, Boris Johnson should sack him.”
In a post on social media, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Raab must go.”
Reiterating the same position, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “Dominic Raab has failed to perform his basic duties as foreign secretary, and he has put people’s lives at risk. His position is completely untenable and he must resign, or be sacked.”
And Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts said Mr Raab “no longer commends respect” and “should resign or be removed from post”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has also defended Mr Raab, telling Kay Burley that “one phone call is not the reason we are where we are” in terms of the current situation in Afghanistan.
He added that he had “no problem” in dealing with the foreign secretary while he was abroad.
Senior Conservative Sir Roger Gale said he is “not prepared to be party to a witch hunt” against the foreign secretary.
“They are briefed on a minute-by-minute basis, the fact that somebody these days with modern communications happens to be sitting in Greece or Timbuktu for that matter, it doesn’t make any difference, they are still able to communicate,” he told the PA news agency.
Mr Raab has been accused of failing to ask Hanif Atmar for urgent assistance in evacuating Afghan interpreters who had worked for UK military personnel during the 20-year conflict in the country.
It was important the call was made by Mr Raab, rather than a junior minister, the officials had said.
But they were told Mr Raab was unavailable and that Lord Goldsmith, the Foreign Office minister on duty, could speak to Mr Atmar instead.
On Wednesday, a Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The foreign secretary was engaged on a range of other calls and this one was delegated to another minister.”
Reports later transpired that the phone call was not made by the junior foreign office minister either.
Mr Raab reportedly did not speak with his Afghan counterpart until at least the next day, after the Afghan foreign ministry refused to set up a call with the more junior UK minister.
This meant crucial time was lost before the Taliban took control of Kabul on Sunday, prompting a desperate scramble to evacuate thousands of Britons and the interpreters that is still ongoing.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused Mr Raab of a “dereliction of duty”.
Meanwhile, a No 10 spokesperson confirmed the prime minister will chair a COBR meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan.