An animal rights campaigner closely involved in the rescue of Pen Farthing and his animals from Afghanistan said he was confident “pressure had been brought to bear” by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to ensure the controversial airlift could go ahead.
Dominic Dyer told the Guardian that he believed his intensive lobbying of No 10 – which included texting the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, with updates “every few days” – had prompted Johnson to overrule defence secretary Ben Wallace at a critical moment during August’s chaotic evacuation of Kabul.
His comments came hours after a former Foreign Office employee, Raphael Marshall, had said the prime minister had issued “an instruction” to ensure 173 dogs and cats at Farthing’s Nowzad charity were rescued this summer – fresh testimony in a row that had first surfaced in the summer.
But the twin claims were contradicted by Johnson and Downing Street on Tuesday, anxious to avoid the charge from Marshall that it had prioritised what been described as a rescue of “pets over people,” during the chaotic evacuation from Kabul in the last days of August. “That’s complete nonsense,” Johnson said.
Wallace had been blocking the airlift of Farthing, staff at the charity and the animals, arguing their rescue could not be a priority when the military were scrambling to airlift thousands of what he believed were more pressing cases of people at risk from the Taliban to the UK.
Dyer said that could only have come about after an intervention from No 10. “I’ve been around politics a long time. You don’t get a situation where the secretary of state changes his view and puts out a tweet at 1.33am unless pressure has been brought to bear. I believe the PM got involved,” the campaigner said.
The story behind the controversial rescue of Farthing, a former royal marine, and the animals from the Nowzad charity has come back in focus in the light of Marshall’s extraordinary written testimony to the foreign affairs select committee, released overnight.
In it Marshall wrote that the US and UK militaries were taking “extreme measures” to preserve limit evacuation capacity at Kabul airport on 25 August. They included requests “not to evacuate the [British] embassy guards” and British soldiers “forcibly removing people” from the Baron hotel processing centre.
“In this context, we received an instruction from the prime minister to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals,” Marshall wrote, a decision that he said meant “British soldiers were put at risk” to help the evacuation go ahead. “The protection of domestic animals was not a UK war aim in Afghanistan,” Marshall added in his testimony.
At lunchtime, Downing Street vehemently denied what it called “entirely untrue” claims by Marshall and others. “At no point did the prime minister intervene,” Johnson’s spokesperson said. “We have always prioritised people over animals, as we said both during and subsequently.”
The spokesperson also rejected the idea that Carrie Johnson sought to ensure the Nowzad charity was assisted, saying: “Neither the PM nor his wife were involved.” The MoD referred all inquiries back to Downing Street.
Dyer said that it was not true that he and Farthing were simply focused on rescuing animals: “This was never pets before people, there were 60 staff and dependents we were trying to get out. In the end they couldn’t get into the airport and were airlifted out to the UK separately after they had crossed the border to Pakistan in September”.
The campaigner also acknowledged he could not definitely prove that Johnson had overruled Wallace, but he said that he had heard from other political sources that the prime minister had become personally involved: “I know Rod Liddle, the columnist, who had told me that Priti Patel had told him that she’d been asked to approve visas for Nowzad’s staff by the prime minister”.