Published:

It’s unusual for a former ConservativeHome contributor to make the Daily Mail‘s front page – and the Guardian’s.  Both at once.  Because that writer has turned whistleblower.

But so it is today.  Raffy Marshall went on after university, at which time his ConHome articles appeared, to work for the Foreign Office.

He recently resigned – and has submitted evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee about what he saw of the Foreign Office’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis earlier this year.  Full declaration of interest: he is my godson.

You will read parts of his submission in the papers this morning, but the nub of the matter is that he believes the Foreign Office’s crisis response structure was found to be not fit for purpose.

And that the department as a whole was found institutionally wanting, resulting in unforced errors which bear a responsibility for avoidable deaths in Afghanistan.

These failures in his view are illustrated by his own experience – which at one point found him, a junior civil servant, charged with making life and death decisions about which desparate Afghans would be evacuated.

He was at that point the only person in that position – charged with assessing thousands of unread e-mails, as hundreds more piled up by the hour.

Furthermore, Raffy knows, by his own admission, nothing much about Afghanistan. He speaks none of its languages, such as Pashto and Dari. In all likelihood, he could not identify its major towns and cities on a map.

Additionally, he had no access to an expert on Afghanistan. Nor to Government nor even open source analysis of human rights there.

You must make what you will of his story as it unfolds this morning and during the next few days.  I want this morning to give my take in brief, for what it’s worth, and look at the possible consequences of his revelations.

For what it’s worth, my reflex view of whistleblowers tends to be a cool one, since my take is that their usual first duty is to take up issues that concern them with their employer – to make their case, as it were, before blowing a whistle.

And it is sometimes the case that whistleblowing serves the interests of Britain’s enemies.  However, that is not the case here, and Raffy did indeed make a complaint to the Foreign Office.

Furthermore, he has since resigned of his own volition, which was the honourable course to take – and has made his case to a Parliamentary committee rather than a media outlet.

(It was the committee itself which released his evidence, along with all the rest submitted to it, in the course of its enquiry into its inquiry into Afghanistan.)

Next, I’m not emotionally engaged, as Raffy is, with the fate of that country. Nonetheless, Britain has enduring obligations to some Afghans – such as those who served our Armed Forces, for example.

I think most people would agree with that view, whatever their take on how many refugees we should take.  This takes me to the politics of Raffy’s story.

A whistleblower’s revelations are usually followed by a media stampede – with demands for the resignation of the politician concerned (as the Opposition clambers aboard the bandwagon).

However, that ritual dance can’t be trod in this case, because Dominic Raab, who was in charge at the time, has since been moved from the Foreign Office.

Raffy is severe about the former Foreign Secretary, suggesting that he should have made swifter decisions on individual cases.

I suspect that Raab’s defence will be that he needed to see them alongside others to understand the context, but we shall see.

In any event, my sense is that nothing in Raffy’s account is likely to damage the former Foreign Secretary more than the holiday he was criticised for continuing as the Afghanistan crisis gathered pace.

The case for the defence, not so much of Raab as Foreign Secretary but of the Foreign Office as an institution, is that it simply didn’t have the resources to cope.

It will argue, as Raab has already done, that it had a limited number of employees with knowledge of Afghanistan, and that they were better employed getting people out directly rather than answering the growing mass of e-mails.

Indeed, Raffy himself accepts that it was inevitable that the vast majority of eligible Afghans who appealed to the FCDO for evacuation would be left behind.

And that this was not in itself the Foreign Office’s fault – and there were inevitably many impossible decisions to be made about who to leave behind in Kabul and who to rescue.

However, the department itself took his initial complaint seriously enough to commission an internal inquiry.  So it concedes at the least that Raffy had a prima facie case.

You can bet your house on Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, demanding that it sees this inquiry’s report.

To cut to the chase: if someone blows a whistle – which makes a loud noise and tends to disturb people – they should do so with good cause.  What’s the nub of the issue here?

Is it really more than an over-stretched department not rising to events?  I think so.  Taken as a whole, Raffy’s account is an inside view of institutional failure.

For example, potential refugees were misled, according to Raffy, by being told that their emails had been logged, which suggested that these had been read when they had not.

It is hard to see this device as other than a means of allowing Ministers to give a misleading impression to the Commons.

Elsewhere, a key refugee scheme, the Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, was only approved four to five days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, according to Raffy.

However, the Ministry of Defence began planning for Operation Pitting, its own rescue scheme, in January.  It comes better out of Raffy’s account than the Foreign Office.

He says that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence communicated very ineffectively, to the extent that the Ministry of Defence was initially not informed of the Foreign Office’s evacuation plans.

And that the Foreign Office did not initially provide the soldiers responsible for emailing priority evacuees travel documents with working computers.

There are darkly comic moments in his story – such as the  British Embassy in Washington reporting an e-mail from him requesting a security clearance as a Russian phishing attack.

But its details, such as the fate of Afghans depending on whether the civil servants on a particular shift had entered their application on a spreadsheet or not, are no laughing matter.

We all know what will happen next.  David Lammy will call for a statement.  Tugendhat will issue an excoriating report.  Liz Truss will say that there are lessons to be learnt.

The tale Raffy tells could perhaps have happened under any government – since in his view the Foreign Office is good at running embassies but apparently very bad at crisis management.

But it can’t simply be dismissed as an account of under-resourcing, thus making what he describes, in the words that Dickens considered as an alternative title to Little Dorrit, “nobody’s fault”.

Liz Truss has charge of a department which hasn’t recovered from a key element of its recent mission, EU membership, vanishing.

It doesn’t have control of trade policy, which bits of it want.  It does now have responsibility for overseas aid, which bits of it don’t want.

The new Foreign Secretary is on top of the world, or at least this site’s Cabinet League Table, but she will need to be on top of her department.