This week’s report into the debacle of Britain’s evacuation from Afghanistan lays bare the failing core of Britain’s state. A Labour Shadow National Security Council could help expose the chaos.
None of the Paras deployed to Kabul Airport will ever forget what they saw. In the hot maelstrom, babies and children were desperately handed high over razor wire to soldiers to escape the Taliban. “They shouted, ‘save my baby’ and threw the babies at us” said one officer. “Some of the babies fell on the barbed wire. It was awful what happened. By the end of the night there wasn’t one man among us who was not crying.”
This week, the Foreign Affairs Committee laid bare the debt we owe to those heroic soldiers and civil servants who managed the chaos at Kabul band the system failures that put them in an impossible position. And the buck stops in No 10.
The entropy inside the Foreign Office during the Afghanistan evacuation was extraordinary – and worse Parliament had to rely on extremely brave whistle-blowers to learn the truth.
The nadir came with the airlift of the Nowzad animal charity, together with its staff and rescued pets, which exposed a complete breakdown in the chain of command over the evacuation. The Defence Secretary tweeted their flight was cleared. The Foreign Office was blindsided and so checked with the National Security Advisor, Stephen Lovegrove, who it is said checked ‘with No 10’. But in retrospect Mr Lovegrove ‘can’t remember’ who he consulted. Ministers profess all ignorance of the decision. A conspiracy of silence has defeated Parliament’s effort to find the truth.
While much of today’s ordure today will fall on the Foreign Office, the story actually reveals one thing above all: it is the centre of government which is failing.
The truth is, there is now level of bureaucratic breakdown across Government that’s become ‘the new normal’. The Passport Office is struggling to issue passports. There are months of delay in renewing driving licences. The Department for Education summoned its staff back to the office last week, only to discover there were no desks for them to work from.
But the most serious failures are not within departments but between them. When departments fail to work together seamlessly, the results are often life and death as today’s report reveals.
In the age of shockwaves we inhabit today, Downing Street is the vital nexus, the great gearbox of State, the home of those that grip and drive the work of departments – like the Foreign Office, the MoD, the intelligence agencies, and the Home Office that must work seamlessly together if something as complicated as the evacuation of a country is to be effected smoothly. Yet despite 18 months notice that the Americans were leaving Afghanistan, the Prime Minister failed to ask his ministers or officials for a plan – and the plan made up in the heat of action, simply failed as noone was in the saddle when Kabul fell.
But this is not a one off. It’s now emerged that Government Departments – the Foreign Office, the MOD, and the Treasury came to a consensus about the need to repay historic debts to Iran in 2019 – yet it then took three years for the payment to be made, unlocking the release of British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian jail. Even former ministers cannot explain the dither or delay. Today, ministers have failed to coordinate support for refugees from the Ukraine leaving Ukrainian families stranded in France. We seem to be able to dispatch arms abroad but not visas.
Running No 10 is hard. I know. As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster during the Great Financial Crisis I had to reorganise No 10 for Gordon Brown whose governing style was very different to Tony Blair. Every PM needs their own systems for putting the kinetic energy into government, banging heads together and above all gripping the tiller when seas get rough. But as Sue Gray has made clear, two years into his tenure, Boris Johnson still has not fixed his headquarters and so he lives by his wits, while his team stands accused of knowing more about planning fiestas after-work than handling fiascos abroad.
But there is an answer. At the storm centre of Downing Street is the National Security Council. First proposed by Gordon Brown and enhanced by David Cameron, the NSC has today fallen into disrepair. Yet it is supposed to be the ‘the main forum for collective discussion of the government’s objectives for national security and about how best to deliver them.’ It’s got to start delivering on this mission and to help, it may now be time for Labour to consider creating a Shadow National Security Council of its own. After all, shadow ministers aspiring to office should get into good habits in Opposition.
Mr Johnson campaign with gusto, but he governs without grip. He is living by wits alone and so Government is even less than the sum of its inadequate parts.
Rt Hon Liam Byrne is the Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Hodge Hill.
Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill | Chair, Parliamentary Network on the World Bank & International Monetary Fund @ParlNet | Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk | Proud Patron @NACOAUK