Dominic Raab’s conflicts with staff led to delays in Afghanistan evacuation, sources claim

Raab allegedly allowed only a handful of senior staff to engage with him near the final stages of the operation

Dominic Raab’s refusal to speak to some Foreign Office staff he considered “time-wasters” led to “blockages” during the Afghanistan evacuation, with staff at two departments he ran forced to take sick leave because of his alleged behaviour, sources have told the Guardian.

New claims emerged about the deputy prime minister’s conduct compounding the chaotic exit of British forces during the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, which officials warned had been “costly” and caused “long-lasting” damage.

Raab, who it is understood denies the claims, is set to be investigated over two formal complaints made against him by civil servants who worked with him at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice.

He was moved from foreign secretary to justice secretary just weeks after the Afghanistan evacuation, termed Operation Pitting. The foreign affairs select committee later accused the government of being “missing in action” as part of a report that examined the episode.

In the lead-up to the final stages of the withdrawal, decisions were delayed and backed up as Raab allowed only a handful of senior staff to engage with him and members of his private office, insiders told the Guardian.

The then-foreign secretary described several senior officials in the Foreign Office as “time wasters”, one source said.

They told the Guardian quick decisions were needed but “we couldn’t get him to listen to this message, let alone act on it”, and added: “This blockage was very costly. Decisions that should have taken hours took days or simply did not happen.”

Raab was “determined to cut off routes for communication for those he found to be challenging voices” and directed that only a handful of senior staff that he considered “worthwhile” were able to escalate matters to reach him, according to the source.

With many of them out of the office in June, July and August, it meant that several routes for communicating effectively with the foreign secretary virtually broken down.

Another source said Raab often only spoke directly to about half a dozen people, mostly his special advisers, and the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary. “Failure for him to reply to many things during Afghanistan were detrimental,” they added.

A senior aide of Raab, Rob Oxley, was on his honeymoon during this period. It left staff without a major route for dealing with the foreign secretary on sensitive issues.

So severe was the breakdown of communication that when then-Foreign Office permanent secretary, Philip Barton – said to have been the primary “handler” for Raab – was also on leave, officials felt forced to circumvent Raab and escalate matters with No 10 or the Ministry of Defence in order to get time-critical decisions made, those with knowledge of the situation said.

On one occasion, when Raab could be reached while he was on holiday at the height of the crisis, multiple sources said he verbally berated the Foreign Office gold commander, Nigel Casey, over Microsoft Teams and threatened to sack him.

A separate Foreign Office insider said the episode had left “such a long-lasting impact on the department”, likening the feeling to post-traumatic stress disorder.

As well as the concerns about Raab’s behaviour during the Afghanistan crisis, sources also told the Guardian that staff working for Raab at both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) felt forced to take long-term leave due to poor mental health.

In the formal complaint written by a group of mid-ranking policy officials at the MoJ in spring this year, seen by the Guardian, it was claimed: “The combination of the pressure of work and unreasonable deadlines has had such an impact on some colleagues’ mental and physical health that they have visited their GPs, and some have subsequently been signed off work for extended periods of time.”

The Guardian understands that Raab firmly rebuts the allegations, and it was said that a senior official had been responsible for managing the flow of information to Raab during the crisis period to allow him to make the right decisions in the right time.

It is disputed that he dismissed any suggestion to return home from holiday.

Raab has denied all allegations of bullying, telling the Commons when he stood in at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that he had “behaved professionally throughout” his career.

He referred himself for investigation after the two formal complaints about his conduct surfaced.

Raab, who is expected to face questions from the justice select committee on Tuesday 22 November, said he looked forward to “addressing these complaints” and added: “I have never tolerated bullying, and always sought to reinforce and empower the teams of civil servants working in my respective departments.”

Contributors

Aubrey Allegretti and Anna Isaac

The GuardianTramp

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