Dominic Raab on the ropes as MPs’ punches rain down

Foreign Secretary faces round of questions over holiday taken as Kabul fell

As an accomplished amateur boxer, Dominic Raab might have experienced the physical fear of endless punches with little to offer in defence.

In front of the Foreign Affair Committee he certainly suffered fearsome political body blows on Wednesday as MPs lined up with their sharpest jabs for the stricken British Foreign Secretary.

Why had he remained on holiday as Kabul fell? Why had British Embassy security guards been left behind? Is Britain’s alliance with America in tatters?

The opening round did not bode well. “How many of your ministers are overseas at the moment?” asked committee chairman Tom Tugendhat, a fellow Conservative MP and military veteran of Afghanistan.

Mr Raab looked hopefully down at his notes, then responded: “I don’t have that precise detail…” The Foreign Secretary has six ministers under his command.

It was a soft jab, but it had taken Mr Raab unawares and struck home. He tried to recover by speaking softly, his elbows gently resting on the table in the committee room with MPs sat opposing him in a horseshoe formation.

When was the last time a British minister had visited Tajikistan? He didn’t know. Uzbekistan? Likewise.

Mr Tugendhat, who would certainly like Mr Raab’s job, had made the reputationally toxic suggestion that Mr Raab was not entirely in command of his brief.

The Foreign Secretary attempted a counter-punch by boldly stating he would be travelling to the region – possibly Pakistan – straight after the two-hour session. No one had the heart to suggest it was a bit after the event. However, it did not take long for an MP to point out that Mr Raab, along with the Prime Minister, had been “missing in action”, on holiday, as the crisis unfolded.

Unfortunately for Mr Raab, 47, he was still sunning himself at a boutique hotel in Crete when Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15.

Aside from an extremist regime taking over a state, the MPs became most preoccupied with when, exactly, Mr Raab began his holiday, given that he should have been on hand in London in such an emergency.

“Many thousands of people who stood by us in a difficult time in Afghanistan were in peril of their lives and there was still not a proper crisis centre up in place,” said Chris Bryant, of Labour. “Do you not see that it’s important for the British people to understand why you thought it was right to go on holiday?”

Nine times Stewart McDonald, of the Scottish National Party, asked what date he departed for the Mediterranean when British citizens were at risk.

Each time Mr Raab refused to answer, instead offering the defence that nowadays most people work remotely, in his case attending high-level emergency meetings with his laptop while overlooking the sea.

He was then asked how many people had been left behind in Afghanistan who were entitled to get out. “I can’t give you a definitive number,” he responded. But he could give a definitive list of nine judges, 47 journalists, 42 law enforcement officials and 11 government officials who had been saved.

He then attempted a counter attack, pointing to “irresponsible” journalists and “nonsense” written in newspapers by suggesting that the Foreign Office immigration processing at Kabul’s airport was a shambles.

But he admitted it was “regrettable” that the British embassy security guards were turned away because of incorrect paperwork.

The Taliban had even seized the official embassy portrait of the Queen, one MP then exclaimed. Mr Raab looked puzzled. He had ordered it to be destroyed, he said.

He then tried to divert the punches on to others. ISIS had even attacked the Taliban. The Americans were always going to leave. And “the rapid fall [of Kabul] was beyond expectations”.

But all military leave had been cancelled on July 23. Was it a bad idea, that he still went on holiday, an MP persisted? Mr Raab let the blow land.

“All I’ve heard you say is that you wish you’d come back from a holiday earlier,” persisted Graham Stringer, of Labour. “Are there any other regrets that you have?”

The Foreign Secretary declined to answer but later admitted there were lessons to be learnt.

Closing the session, Mr Tugendhat left him with a painful reprimand by referring to Britain’s last major Middle East catastrophe, in 1956.

“I stand by the view that this is the single biggest foreign policy disaster that the UK has faced since Suez, in the sense that it has exposed a weakness in our alliances,” he said.

Mr Raab demurred otherwise as he readied to leave, perhaps wondering if he would ever face such opponents again as a heavyweight politician.

Boris Johnson appears more than content to let another minister take the flak for the Afghan debacle, even one as loyal as Mr Raab. However, that loyalty was largely pledged over Brexit, and now that project is done the Prime Minister may consider him expendable.

Updated: September 2nd 2021, 6:12 AM
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