Boris Johnson has “full confidence” in the head of the Foreign Office, who has come under scathing criticism for the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
MPs on the Commons foreign affairs committee demanded that Philip Barton consider his position following the publication of its report which found that Afghan allies and British soldiers were “utterly let down by deep failures of leadership” during the evacuation of Kabul.
The report, published on Tuesday, took aim at Barton and then foreign secretary Dominic Raab for remaining on holiday while the capital fell to the Taliban.
The MPs said their decision showed a “fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership” and that the overall withdrawal was a “disaster” and a “betrayal” of Britain’s allies.
But asked what the prime minister made of the report’s findings, his official spokesman said: “We don’t agree with all of the conclusions that the committee has drawn on this.
“Foreign Office staff and government staff more widely worked tirelessly, evacuating 15,000 People from Afghanistan in 14 days. It was the biggest UK mission of its kind.”
Asked if Johnson still has confidence in Barton, the spokesman replied: “Yes”.
In a withering assessment, the committee said Barton “displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the department he leads” and a determination to avoid unearthing the facts.
His decision not to return to Kabul until after the civilian evacuation was over was “difficult to understand and impossible to excuse”.
It meant other staff had to implement a “poorly planned evacuation process under intense pressure”, the MPs said.
“The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions.
“The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue.
“They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in government.”
The report added: “It is the responsibility of the permanent under-secretary to ensure that this system operates effectively.
“The committee has lost confidence in the permanent under-secretary, who should consider his position.”
Barton previously expressed regret at his decision to not return from holiday but has so far refused to resign.
Asked by the foreign affairs committee in December why he chose to go on holiday on August 9 — just days before the Taliban takeover — Barton said: “When I went on leave, including on the ninth, there was no inevitability at that point that Kabul was going to fall in the period that it fell in.
“The best assessment was that it could take some time. There was no certainty over the timescale.
“It is quite usual, actually, for secretaries of state and permanent secretaries to be away in periods which are usually holiday periods.”
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the committee, said: “The UK’s part in this tragedy exposes a lack of seriousness in achieving coordination, a lack of clear decision-making, a lack of leadership and a lack of accountability.
“While junior officials demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making runs through this inquiry.
“Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger.”
Elsewhere in the report, the MPs suggested that Johnson was behind the “mysterious intervention” that led to staff from the Nowzad animal welfare charity being evacuated from Afghanistan.
Downing Street has repeatedly denied that the prime minister played any role in prioritising the evacuation of Nowzad’s staff, but the Foreign Affairs Committee said “multiple senior officials” believed he had and added: “We have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation.”