Boris Johnson has been accused of a “hiding behind his defence secretary” for refusing to appear in public to comment on the escalating crisis in the Middle East.
Jeremy Corbyn lashed out as the prime minister decided not lead for the government in the Commons on the US assassination in Iraq of Iranian military chief Qassem Soleimani.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace updated MPs instead, but Corbyn responded formally for the Opposition in a bid to highlight the national importance of the situation.
The cabinet discussed events in Iraq at its meeting on Tuesday morning, and Johnson is set to chair a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to go through detailed responses.
Downing Street insisted the PM was closely involved, but Corbyn asked Wallace:“Could he tell us where the prime minister is and what is he doing that’s so much more important than addressing parliament on the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani – an extremely dangerous and aggressive act that risks starting yet another deadly war in the Middle East.”
Corbyn said the PM had not answered a series of questions he asked in a letter, adding: “Instead today he’s hiding behind his defence secretary.”
A Labour source added: “This is a significant development with potentially major implications for the national security of this country.
“It is a dereliction of duty for the prime minister to refuse to come and update parliament and the country on this important issue.”
Johnson has not given any TV clips or appeared in public since his return from his Christmas holiday.
But No.10 defended the decision to delegate to Wallace, with foreign secretary Dominic Raab unavailable because he is in Brussels to discuss the situation with French and German counterparts.
“The PM leads a cabinet government and the response to events in the middle east is a collective cabinet response,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
“The prime minister has spoken to and continues to speak to world leaders.
“He has overseen the ministerial response and will chair the National Security Council. The safety and security of our personnel is of paramount importance and we keep our force protection measures under review.
“The defence secretary along with other ministers has worked to ensure British assets and interests are prepared and protected and he will update parliament with the latest developments.”
The spokesman added that during the cabinet meeting the PM stressed “the importance of protecting British citizens and interests and de-escalating tensions”, but a “more substantial” discussion would take place at the NSC.
Johnson, who returned from his Christmas holiday on a Caribbean island this weekend, has already been under fire for waiting several days to formally respond to the Iraq crisis.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry accused Johnson of “sunning himself and drinking vodka martinis” instead of dealing with the issue.
Soleimani’s killing took place on Friday but it was Sunday evening before any Johnson statement was issued by No.10.
Thornbery said there had been three emergency Cobra meetings where Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, had been forced to chair in Johnson’s absence.
Acting Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey said it was “shameful” that Johnson was “hiding behind his ministers on the dangerous situation in the Gulf”.
“The prime minister should stop dodging Parliament and explain what he will do to deescalate tensions and ensure the safety of British service personnel and civilians in the region,” he said.
“Boris Johnson must confirm that he will not blindly follow Donald Trump into military action against Iran, potentially the most reckless decision since the Iraq war.”
Meanwhile, forty people have been killed in a stampede as Iranians flocked to the burial of the top commander killed in a US drone strike, officials say.
The deaths in Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman led to the postponement of his interment.