Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Raab fails to win friends and influence people

1 Sep

It is a rare gift to be able to spot the exceptional occasions in politics when all previous assumptions must be abandoned and precipitate action taken.

On the basis of Dominic Raab’s evidence this afternoon to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, nobody at a senior level in the Foreign Office possesses that gift.

The department seems to have been sunk in summer torpor as the Taliban advanced at lightening speed across Afghanistan.

Nobody in King Charles Street, or in Downing Street, had worked out that at this rate, Kabul would fall within weeks, days, even hours.

The conventional wisdom in Whitehall was that this was a time to relax, a chance to take oneself off and recover from the exertions of the past year. Even the Prime Minister had at long last departed for the West Country.

Raab himself was already on holiday in Crete, though he today refused, somewhat petulantly, to say on which day he had departed. He said he had already made “a fulsome statement” on that matter, unaware that the word “fulsome” means (as Chambers Dictionary puts it) “cloying or causing surfeit: nauseous: offensive: gross: rank: disgustingly fawning”.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary, to whom would normally fall the administrative responsibility for responding at high speed to the unfolding disaster, by assigning the people and other resources needed to carry out the evacuation, was likewise on holiday.

Tom Tugendhat (Con, Tonbridge and Malling), the chair of the committee, sought to establish how much attention ministers had been paying not only to Afghanistan, but to neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, through which evacuation by land might or might not be permitted.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Raab’s evidence was that almost no ministerial attention had been paid to those countries, few if any ministerial visits had been paid, and even ministerial telephone calls to their opposite numbers in those countries were almost unknown.

Nor did ministers consider it worth speaking to the British ambassadors in Kabul and neighbouring countries. That, the Foreign Secretary explained, was not how things worked: “All the ambassadors would feed in their advice.”

If any of the British diplomats on the spot sought to raise the alarm, and there is no evidence that any of them did, the message got lost as it travelled up the chain of command.

According to the central intelligence assessment in Whitehall, Raab told the committee, “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.

All he could offer, as evidence that Afghanistan had not been entirely forgotten in recent months, was the curious statistic that there had been “over 40 meetings” about Afghanistan in his department between mid-March and 30th August, which meant there had been “at least one” meeting “every four days”.

Kabul fell on 15th August, so one assumes the meetings became remarkably frequent in the last two weeks of that month, leaving not very many to cover the earlier period.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) reminded Raab that the Foreign Office’s travel advice for British nationals in Afghanistan only changed on 6th August.

Raab is now travelling to the region. “This isn’t the time to be making best friends,” Tugendhat remarked.

“Better late than never,” Raab might have replied.

The Foreign Secretary was tense, lucid, disciplined, unyielding and isolated, and had certainly not made best friends of the committee.