His balding head was bobbing like a buoy in a squall: HENRY DEEDES watches Foreign Office head squirming over Kabul shambles
Parliamentary committees have witnessed their fair share of chumps over the years.
Druggy ex-Co-op bank chairman Paul Flowers – the so-called Crystal Methodist – springs to mind. Or hapless ‘Incurious George’ Entwistle, director-general of the BBC for about as long as it takes to boil an egg.
To that list of prized bunglers, we can add the name of Sir Philip Barton KCMG OBE, permanent secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) who also revels in the frothy title of head of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service.
The Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Permanent-under secretary Sir Philip Barton, pictured giving evidence on the evacuation from Afghanistan to MPs sitting on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tuesday December 7, 2021
Sir Philip was grilled yesterday by the foreign affairs committee. The subject: Our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Folks, it wasn’t pretty.
For two-and-a-half hours, his balding head bobbed around like a buoy in a squall, desperately trying to remain above water. And by the time the committee was done, I thought we might have to summon the RNLI.
Barton appeared with our former ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, one of the few senior figures to emerge with any credit in the Afghan debacle, having remained in post during the evacuation.
Joining via Zoom was another FCDO mandarin, Nigel Casey, whose suave vowels and well-coiffed fringe suggested a man who drives in leather gauntlets and keeps debenture seats at all the necessary venues.
My first impression of Sir Philip was that he too might be a cool customer. He wore a standard issue Sir Humphrey uniform: Grey suit, clunking wristwatch, cruel spectacles. Awaiting proceedings to begin, he sipped water as though savouring a particularly rich barolo.
Yet from the moment committee chairman Tom Tugendhat began his questioning, it became clear we were dealing with a panicker.
Pictured: Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war
He forgot basic details. He tripped over words. Whenever Tugendhat pressed him on something, he would ask his colleague: ‘Nigel, do you want to come in on this?’
Things got tasty when Tugendhat raised the thorny issue of Sir Philip’s summer holiday. When Kabul fell on August 15, he was sunning himself overseas. When did he decide to return? Clearly, Phil had been gearing himself up for this.
He scrunched his hands and announced he’d had time to reflect on his leave. ‘If I had my time again I would have come back earlier,’ he said. Yes, but when did he return?
‘August 26,’ came the response. In other words: 11 long days after the Afghan capital fell into the Taliban’s clutches.
As this information percolated around the oak-panelled room, a peculiar hush fell upon the committee. Eyeballs flickered. Second hands on watches ticked.
Tugendhat straightened his Clark Kent specs. He thought it ‘strange’ Sir Philip had not come back earlier. Ha! One way of putting it.
Sir Philip cleared his rusty larynx and repeated himself. ‘I’ve reflected on my leave, on my leave, and if I had my time again…’
There followed a terrifying encounter with Alicia Kearns (Con, Rutland). Lively Miss Kearns, a former FCDO employee, is not a person one wishes to come up against on the hockey field. Boy, she can shout.
One blast of those lungs could inflate a hot air balloon.
Afghans struggle to reach the foreign forces to show their credentials to flee the country outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 26 August 2021
‘If this isn’t what failure looks like, what does?’ she bellowed. Barton fumbled and spluttered. Nigel, help!
Thanks to FCDO whistleblower Raphael Marshall, we learned this week Barton’s department during the crisis was workshy.
Reports came of some civil servants clocking off after eight hours, of others refusing to work weekends. ‘Bit rubbish,’ frowned Bob Seely (Con, Isle of Wight).
In true Whitehall style, Sir Philip claimed he ‘didn’t recognise that characterisation’.
Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) badgered Barton again about his holiday. We learned that he left on August 9, when he claimed there was no inevitability Kabul would fall.
Utter tosh. Anyone with an internet connection could see the mullahs were on the brink of running rampant by then. Tugendhat gave a disappointed shake of the head. ‘Leadership matters,’ he remarked gravely.
With each put-down, you sensed Barton’s dismay. A lifetime climbing Whitehall’s greasy pole – and now here he was, being patronised by a panel of backbench non-entities.
There was even a dressing-down from Claudia Webbe (Ind, Leicester E), that lovely creature recently given a suspended sentence for threatening to throw acid on someone but still somehow an MP.
Should Sir Philip ever pen his memoirs, he may wish to caption that exchange in the index as ‘career low point’.
Top Foreign Office mandarin stayed on holiday for 11 days as Kabul fell
By John Stevens Deputy Political Editor for the Daily Mail
The Foreign Office’s top mandarin was facing pressure to quit last night after he admitted he stayed on holiday for 11 days after the fall of Kabul.
During an extraordinary grilling by MPs yesterday, Sir Philip Barton admitted that he had been on annual leave for almost the entire duration of the two-week evacuation effort.
The £185,000-a-year Head of the Diplomatic Service began his break, during which he spent time abroad and in the UK, on August 9. Even after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15 he remained away.
He only returned to his desk 11 days later – just two days before the final British mercy flight left Kabul.
Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, was also away but came back to Whitehall from a luxury beach holiday in Crete on August 16.
Sir Philip’s admission came on a day of revelations about his department’s shambolic handling of the evacuation of Afghanistan.
A whistleblower exposed how rescue flights were hampered by a ‘work from home’ culture in Whitehall.
During an extraordinary grilling by MPs yesterday (pictured), Sir Philip Barton admitted that he had been on annual leave for almost the entire duration of the two-week evacuation effort
Former civil servant Raphael Marshall claimed that he was at times the only person dealing with thousands of emails from those desperate to flee the Taliban. Sir Philip yesterday acknowledged it was a mistake for him to have remained on holiday and that on reflection he should ‘come back from my leave earlier’.
But he suggested his presence would have made no difference to the airlift.
‘I have reflected a lot since August on my leave, and if I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier than I did,’ he told the Commons foreign affairs committee.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns told him: ‘I don’t think it is enough to say, “mea culpa”.
‘How in two weeks did at no point, you go, “I can’t, I have to go in and protect my people?”’ During the hearing Sir Philip repeated several times that he would act differently if he had the chance to do it over again.
But he was interrupted by chairman Tom Tugendhat, who told him: ‘It sounds less credible every time you repeat it. It sounds platitudinous.’
Sir Philip told the MPs that he should have been ‘more visible to our people who were working on the crisis’.
But he added: ‘I don’t believe me being present in London as opposed to on leave and keeping in touch with the department would have changed the outcome, you know the number of people who were evacuated.’
The mandarin rejected claims from Mr Marshall about how there were staffing shortages in the Foreign Office during the crisis as those who worked more than their designated eight hours were ‘encouraged to leave’.
In a witness statement the junior civil servant wrote that officials were able to refuse to work overtime as part of a ‘drive’ to prioritise ‘work-life balance’.
But Sir Philip insisted said there had been a ‘misunderstanding’.
He told the committee: ‘There isn’t a clocking-off culture at all in the FCDO… We do have an eight-hour shift system. And we make sure, therefore, that people are getting a period of rest and then coming back on the shifts.’
Sir Philip last night faced calls from backbenchers to resign. John Spellar, a Labour MP who sits on the Commons defence committee, said: ‘This shows senior mandarins were asleep at the wheel – he should consider his position.’
Mr Raab said he did not recognise claims that junior officials were left to make life or death decisions on the Afghanistan evacuation effort.
He told Sky News yesterday: ‘I don’t accept that characterisation. I regularly checked that we were properly resourced.’
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