Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said he has been in “constant contact” with Boris Johnson as anger grows over the PM holidaying abroad as the Iran crisis unfolds.
Raab stressed the PM has offered guidance on foreign policy and “is in charge” despite enjoying a break at a luxury villa in the Caribbean with his partner Carrie Symonds.
It comes amid soaring tensions in the Middle East as the US faces claims it acted illegally after an American drone strike killed Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Speaking on Sunday, Raab appeared to defend Donald Trump, describing Soleimani as a “regional menace” and saying the US has the “right of self defence”.
But he markedly stopped short of saying Trump was right in his actions and called for a diplomatic solution as fears rise of all out war.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, meanwhile, has vowed a “forceful revenge” as citizens chanted “death to America” in Tehran yesterday.
In the UK, Johnson has been heavily criticised for not returning from his holiday to deal with the situation and offer the public reassurance.
Pressed on the issue by Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Raab said he has been in “constant contact” with Johnson on issues of foreign policy.
“The prime minister is in charge,” he said. “In fact I’ve been in constant contact with him over the Christmas break on a whole range of foreign policy issues.
“We were in touch on Friday with relation to the situation in Iraq and the whole government is working very closely together. I spoke to the (US) defence secretary last night, I talked to the (US) national security adviser on Friday and we’re very clear on the strategy and how we’re implementing it and he’ll be back in play tomorrow in the UK.”
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has warned of a “lurch towards war” and called Trump’s actions “reckless”.
“To take him out at this stage when there has been escalating tensions seems to me to be not making the world safer, actually we are taking a major lurch towards war,” she said.
The Labour MP also hit out at Johnson for failing to return to the UK.
“We should take responsibility, we are international players, of course, we have other preoccupations, and clearly the prime minister has a lot of preoccupations – he’s sunning himself drinking vodka martinis somewhere else and not paying attention to this,” she said.
“We’ve had three Cobra meetings where Mark Sedwill, the chief civil servant, has had to chair it because the prime minister hasn’t been available.”
Raab said he had spoken to the Iraqi prime minister and president and will be speaking to Iran’s foreign minister.
He warned a war was in “no one’s interests” and would only benefit the so-called Islamic State as he stressed the need to “avoid” a slide into accidental war and “de-escalate the situation”.
“I spoke to the Iraqi prime minister just this morning, the Iraqi president last night and I will be reaching out to the foreign minister of Iran with that same message,” he said.
Raab did not say the UK backed the US, but added: “The US will take their own operational judgment call but they’ve got the right of self defence.”
“So we understand the position the US were in and I don’t think we should be naive about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or indeed General Soleimani.”
Raab said the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother jailed in Iran, remained “at the forefront of my mind” and accused hardliners in Tehran of “nefarious behaviour” and not complying with international law.
But he urged a diplomatic route to be pursued to allow “Iran to come in from the international cold”.
Raab, who is due to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on Thursday, said he has been in contact with the Iraqi prime minister and president and will be speaking to Iran’s foreign minister.
But, as he was speaking, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif struck back at the president’s Twitter threat to target 52 Iranian sites “very fast and very hard” if Tehran strikes US assets.
Zarif accused Trump of having “committed grave breaches” of international law with the killing and of threatening to commit a “war crime” by targeting cultural sites.
“Whether kicking or screaming, end of US malign presence in West Asia has begun,” Zarif tweeted.