Over the years, Parliamentary committees were subject to a lot of mishaps.

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

Pictured giving evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday, December 7, 2021, Sir Philip Barton (the Foreign Office’s highest civil servant), on the evacuation of Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Sir Philip was interviewed by the foreign affairs Committee. The question: Afghanistan’s devastating withdrawal. Folks, it wasn’t pretty. 

Two-and-a half hours passed and his head, balding, floated about like a buoy trying desperately to keep above the water. By the end of the committee, I was beginning to think that we may have to call the RNLI.

Barton appeared alongside Sir Laurie Bristow who was our ex-ambassador to Afghanistan. Bristow is one of only a few high ranking figures that emerged from the Afghan disaster. 

Nigel Casey (FCDO mandarin) joined via Zoom. His suave vowels, well-coiffed fringe and elegant vowels suggested that he was a gentleman who wears leather gauntlets to drive and has debenture seating at all necessary venues.

I was immediately struck by Sir Philip’s coolness. His standard Sir Humphrey uniform consisted of a grey suit and clunking watch, as well as cruel spectacles. He sipped water while awaiting the proceedings to start, as if savouring a very rich barolo.

But it was clear that we were dealing with panickers from the time Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the committee began questioning. 

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

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

Basic details were lost. He lost track of 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. He was outside, sauntering himself after the fall of Kabul on August 15. He was deciding to come home when he turned down the offer. Phil clearly had been preparing himself 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. But when was he supposed to return?

‘August 26,’ came the response. In other words: 11 long days after the Afghan capital fell into the Taliban’s clutches.

The oak-paneled room was filled with this information, and a strange silence fell on the committee. Eyeballs flickered. Watches had second hands that tickled.

Tugendhat adjusted his Clark Kent glasses. He thought it ‘strange’ Sir Philip had not come back earlier. Ha! It can be put in many ways. 

Sir Philip cleared his larynx of rust and repeated the process. ‘I’ve reflected on my leave, on my leave, and if I had my time again…’

After that, there was a scary encounter with Alicia Kearns. (Con. Rutland). The former FCDO employee Lively Miss Kearns does not make for a good opponent on the hockey field. You can hear her shouting. 

You could blow a balloon into existence with just one breath.

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

Afghans fight to access the foreign forces in order to provide proof of their citizenship to flee Afghanistan.

‘If this isn’t what failure looks like, what does?’ she bellowed. Barton floundered and groaned. Nigel, help!

Thanks to FCDO whistleblower Raphael Marshall, we learned this week Barton’s department during the crisis was workshy. 

There were reports of civil servants refusing weekends work and clocking out after working eight hours. ‘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), questioned Barton about his vacation. When we learned that he had left Kabul on Aug 9, he said there wasn’t any way to predict the fall of Kabul.

Utter tosh. Anyone connected to the internet could easily see that the mullahs had been on the verge o waging war. Tugendhat looked disappointed and gave his head a shake. ‘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. 

Claudia Webbe (Ind Leicester E), a lovely creature given a suspended sentence after threatening to throw acid at someone, was also allowed to leave.

Should Sir Philip ever pen his memoirs, he may wish to caption that exchange in the index as ‘career low point’. 

As Kabul fell, the top foreign officer mandarin went on holiday for 11 consecutive days

John Stevens, Deputy Political Editor at 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.

Yesterday, Sir Philip Barton was subject to extraordinary questions by MPs. He admitted that he’d been on annual leave nearly the whole time of the two week evacuation.

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. He remained absent even after Kabul was seized by the Taliban on August 15.

He only returned to his desk 11 days later – just two days before the final British mercy flight left Kabul.

Dominic Raab was the foreign secretary, at the time. He was absent, but returned from Crete for a luxury holiday 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

Yesterday’s extraordinary questioning of MPs (pictured), Sir Philip Barton revealed that he was on annual leave almost for the duration of the evacuation efforts.

Raphael Marshall, a former civil servant claimed that he had to deal with thousands upon thousands of emails sent by those trying to escape 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’. 

However, he said his presence would not have affected 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.’

Last night, Sir Philip was confronted by backbenchers who demanded that he 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.’ 

Raab stated that he didn’t believe claims suggesting that senior officials had been left with the decision-making power to decide whether or not Afghanistan was safe.

He told Sky News yesterday: ‘I don’t accept that characterisation. I regularly checked that we were properly resourced.’