Boris Johnson said it is "total rhubarb" to say he intervened to get animals airlifted out of Afghanistan after leaked emails suggested he authorised the controversial move.
Accused of lying about his role, the prime minister sought to dismiss allegations he personally approved the evacuation of cats and dogs from the Nowzad charity in Kabul.
He has repeatedly denied approving their rescue in the final days of the mission as thousands of people wanting to flee the Taliban were left behind.
But a newly-surfaced email shared with a Commons inquiry shows a foreign office official saying in August that the prime minister had just “authorised” the animals’ rescue.
"This whole thing is total rhubarb," the prime minister told broadcasters during a visit to Hanson Aggregates in Conwy, North Wales, saying he was "proud" of the military airlifts.
The prime minister’s official spokesman had earlier said: “It’s not uncommon in Whitehall for a decision to be interpreted or portrayed as coming directly from the prime minister even when that’s not the case and it’s our understanding that’s what happened in this instance. We appreciate it was a frenetic time for those officials dealing with this situation.”
Asked if he was suggesting the foreign office official was mistaken, he replied: “I can’t say individually which official but that’s our understanding of what happened.”
Cabinet minister Therese Coffey suggested the official had been acting in an unauthorised capacity.
The work and pensions secretary told LBC: “I’ve seen a screenshot of an email. Quite often it’s not unusual in parliament and in government for people to say... for their pet projects the PM has said it’s a priority.
“There are a lot of things we deliver as the government but the PM had no role in individual evacuations and the defence secretary [Ben Wallace] said he was in charge of [the overall rescue operation] in that regard.”
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described calls for a debate on the issue as “fussing about a few animals”.
Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey said: "Once again, the prime ninister has been caught out lying about what he has been doing and deciding.
“He should never have given priority to flying animals out of Afghanistan while Afghans who worked for our armed forces were left behind.” – PA