Dominic Raab has insisted Boris Johnson is ‘in charge’ of the UK’s response to rising tensions in the Middle East amid growing criticism over the Prime Minister’s decision not to cut short his Caribbean holiday.
Mr Johnson is due to fly back to the UK today after a trip to the private island of Mustique to celebrate the New Year with partner Carrie Symonds.
His opponents have attacked him for so far remaining silent over the US’s fatal strike on Iran‘s top general, Qassem Soleimani, on Friday which has plunged the region into fresh instability.
But Mr Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said this morning that he had been ‘in constant contact’ with the PM in recent days as he called for ‘deescalation’ in the stand off between the US and Iran.
Mr Raab also revealed he spoke to the Iraqi prime minister this morning as well as to the Iraqi president last night and that he intended to reach out to the foreign minister of Iran to call for calm.
Responding to suggestions that the PM had ‘put his feet up’ after winning a majority at the general election last month, Mr Raab said: ‘No, that is not right. The Prime Minister is in charge. In fact I have been in constant contact with him over the Christmas break on a whole range of foreign policy issues.
‘We were in touch on Friday in relation to the situation in Iraq and the whole government is working very closely together.
‘I spoke to the Defence Secretary last night, I talked to the National Security Adviser on Friday and we are very clear on the strategy and we are implementing it.
‘He will be back in play tomorrow, in the UK.’
Asked by Sophy Ridge on Sky News why the PM had not come back to the UK early, Mr Raab said: ‘He is in charge, as I said, and we have been in regular contact over the Christmas break.
‘What really matters here is that the government has got a very clear strategy and message which is that we want to see deescalation, we are going to do everything we can to protect UK diplomatic and military missions and we are going about that business.’
Dominic Raab, pictured this morning in central London, has called for ‘deescalation’ in the stand off between the US and Iran
Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on December 19, is yet to comment on the US killing of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani but Mr Raab said today the PM is ‘in charge’ of the UK’s response
People carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani upon arrival at Ahvaz International Airport on Sunday. The casket was greeted by chants of ‘Death to America’ as Iran issued new threats of retaliation
Military personnel carry the casket of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Iran. A tide of mourners packed the streets of the Iranian city of Ahvaz on Sunday to pay respects to top general Soleimani, days after he was killed in a US strike
There are fears of all-out war after Iran threatened revenge over the Donald Trump-approved attack in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday and as the US sent 3,000 extra troops to Kuwait.
The Foreign Office has issued strengthened travel advice to Britons across the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while the Navy will begin accompanying UK-flagged ships through the key oil route of the Strait of Hormuz.
Meanwhile, military chiefs are understood to have ordered 400 soldiers training local forces in Iraq to scrap their duties to switch to ‘force protection’ to defend themselves and British diplomats from potential revenge strikes.
The Foreign Secretary this morning declined to give his full backing to the US strike that killed Soleimani as he labelled the general a ‘regional menace’.
But he defended the US’s right to act as he said ‘we understand the position that the Americans found themselves in’.
‘They have a right to exercise self-defence, they have explained the basis on which that is done and we are sympathetic to the situation they found themselves in,’ he said.
‘But there is a risk with the heightening of tensions and we now seek deescalation and the stabilisation of the situation and a war in fact is in no-one’s interest.
‘The only people that would gain would be Daesh and the terrorists that would exploit the vacuum.’
Mr Trump used Twitter on Saturday night to threaten to hit dozens of targets in Iran ‘very fast and very hard’ if it retaliates for the killing of Soleimani.
Jeremy Corbyn said the ‘assassination’ risks ‘an extremely serious escalation of a dangerous conflict with global consequences by a belligerent US president’.
‘Boris Johnson should have immediately cut short his holiday to deal with an issue that could have grave consequences for the UK and the world,’ the outgoing Labour leader added.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who is running to replace Mr Corbyn as Labour leader, echoed a similar sentiment.
She told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: ‘We should take responsibility, we are international players, of course, we have other preoccupations, and clearly the Prime Minister has a lot of preoccupations – he’s sunning himself drinking vodka martinis somewhere else and not paying attention to this.
‘We’ve had three Cobra meetings where Mark Sedwill, the chief civil servant, has had to chair it because the Prime Minister hasn’t been available.’
Mr Raab is expected to meet his French and German counterparts early this week before travelling to Washington DC on Thursday for face-to-face talks with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
The meeting, understood to have been arranged ahead of the strike, comes after Mr Pompeo criticised the UK’s response.
‘Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be,’ he told Fox News.
‘The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.’
Later, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace gave the strongest backing to the US despite urging ‘all parties’ to de-escalate as he announced the Royal Navy’s bolstered plan to protect UK ships and citizens in the region.
Trump threatened to hit 52 critical targets in Iran in retaliation if Tehran strikes any American interests in the region, upping the stakes after Iran said it had identified 35 targets for potential strikes
Iran is considering its options against America in retaliation for the killing of Quds commander Qassem Soleimeni in Baghdad. The conflict could quickly spiral out of control, dragging in other world powers including Russia, Turkey and China
After speaking to his US counterpart Mark Esper on Friday, Mr Wallace said American forces have been ‘repeatedly attacked by Iranian-backed militia’ in Iraq during ‘the last few months’.
‘General Soleimani has been at the heart of the use of proxies to undermine neighbouring sovereign nations and target Iran’s enemies,’ Mr Wallace continued.
‘Under international law the United States is entitled to defend itself against those posing an imminent threat to their citizens.’
Acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey added to criticism of the PM.
‘Johnson’s silence on Trump’s dangerous assassination in Iraq is deafening,’ Sir Ed said.
‘The Prime Minister must speak out now and make clear Britain will not support the US in repeating the mistake of the Iraq war.’
Labour’s John McDonnell vowed during an anti-war protest at Downing Street to press Mr Johnson over the attack, which will ‘set the Middle East and the globe alight yet again’.
‘And it’s not good enough for the UK Government just to appeal for a de-escalation, what we expect the UK Government to do is to come out in total and outright condemnation of this act of violence,’ the shadow chancellor said.