Steerpike has seen many abject appearances before select committees. There was the time Sir Philip Green told Richard Fuller to 'stop staring' at him after BHS went belly-up. There was Russell Brand's cowboy-hatted testimony on drug abuse. There was even the infamous occasion when Rupert Murdoch was attacked by a pie. But few civil servants have given such a pathetic performance as Sir Philip Barton managed today before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on the loss of Afghanistan.
The Foreign Office Permanent Secretary was up before a panel of seething MPs to respond to this morning's revelations about the department's dire response to the collapse of Kabul. To say that his appearance was a turkey shoot would be an embarrassment to turkeys, as the former mandarin was asked again and again why he refused to cut short his leave as the Taliban prepared to take the capital. In the course of this afternoon's grilling it transpired that the £185,000-a-year official – who has a pension worth £1.7m – stayed on holiday until 26 August, some 11 days after Kabul fell. With Icarus-level hubris, Sir Philip refused to disclose where his jolly jaunt exactly was – only that it was split between the UK and abroad.
Under forceful questioning from a visibly enraged Alicia Kearns, Sir Philip admitted he now 'regrets' not coming back from his holiday sooner – presumably because his gold-plated career is now on the line. The brazen Barton nevertheless insisted that more people would not have been evacuated from Afghanistan if he had returned earlier from holiday – an insistence that prompted Kearns to mutter darkly: 'he couldn't be bothered.'
'It is not enough to say mea culpa' she continued 'How in two weeks did you not think I have to go in and protect my people?' Sir Philip only claimed that: 'I don't believe me being present in London would have changed the outcome – the number of people evacuated.' Doesn't exactly say much for his in person presence among the troops now, does it? At least Sir Humphrey had charisma. Not for nothing did the Rutland and Melton MP tell the flailing mandarin that 'this was a catastrophe of incomparable nature.'
Kearns was just one of many queuing up to turn their fire on Barton's clapped out Rolls Royce of a department. Tory Bob Seely contrasted the soldiers at Kabul airport working around the clock with the 'unfocused and rubbish' Foreign Office pen-pushers refusing to work more than eight hours a day – a comparison which led Barton to bleat that 'there's not a clocking off culture' among his staff. This was despite him admitting in the same session that many of the 500 FCDO staff 'masterminding' the Afghanistan evacuation were, in fact, working from home. And to make matters worse, the department only ordered 24 hour shifts – i.e. night teams – for the crisis from August 14, just the day before Kabul fell, with ministers unable to say for sure that these teams actually showed up on August 14. Trebles all round.
The anger at the Foreign Office was not merely confined to those in Whitehall. Under questioning about what his then political master, Dominic Raab, was up to during the crisis, Barton failed to provide any details as to when Raab went on holiday in August. Asked as to why the call leagues provided to the committee missed out the entire first two weeks of that months, Barton could only stutter and claim he would have to go away and check the information.
Unprepared, unimpressive, underwhelming and ill-advised: that answer seemed to encapsulate Sir Philip's whole dreadful approach to the entire sorry episode of Britain's Kabul debacle. As for the farce of Pen Farthing’s animal evacuation, Barton furiously insisted that ‘there was no decision to evacuate animals over people’ — hours after No. 10 claimed the Prime Minister was not involved in the decision to evacuate the Nowzad animal sanctuary. So it was somewhat embarrassing tonight when LBC revealed a letter from, er, Boris Johnson’s then parliamentary aide Trudy Harrison confirming Nowzad staff could travel to Kabul airport to be evacuated.
— Theo Usherwood (@theousherwood) December 7, 2021
At lunchtime Number 10 said a whistleblower’s claim the PM and his wife were involved in the evacuation of Nowzad staff was “untrue”.Just been passed a letter from the PM’s PPS Trudy Harrison to Pen Farthing to confirm Nowzad staff could travel to the airport to be evacuated. pic.twitter.com/zYLLU0L4aG
Curiously No. 10 claim Trudy Harrison was not acting in her role as the Prime Minister's PPS – despite that title being on the letter and Pen Farthing not being her constituent.
As a row kicks off over a leaked No. 10 video of aides joking about a Christmas party, is it just one more example of Downing Street saying one thing and doing another?