Government Didn’t Record Minutes of MeetingBetween Lebedev and Johnson
A now infamous meeting between the Prime Minister and his Russian ally was not recorded by officials, Sam Bright reports
The Government took no minutes of the now infamous meeting held between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and London-based Russian media mogul Evgeny Lebedev in March 2020, Byline Times can reveal.
Following on from John Sweeney’s reporting for Byline Times in August 2020, The Sunday Times yesterday reported that Johnson personally lobbied the security services to change their advice, which was blocking Lebedev from receiving a lifetime seat in the House of Lords.
The initial advice of MI5 and MI6 was that “they considered that there could be a threat to national security… There was some security concern about the whole situation”.
Hence, based on this assessment, the House of Lords Appointments Commission – which vets peerages – wrote to the Prime Minister in March 2020 advising him against granting Lebedev a peerage. Two days after this advice was sent, on 19 March, Johnson met with Lebedev for a “general discussion”, according to Government records.
“The Prime Minister returned to Downing Street [after this meeting] and took a personal interest in the case,” The Sunday Times reports. A former advisor said he refused to accept the verdict of the security services and would not drop the issue.”
The assessment of the security services subsequently changed, and the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers was introduced to the House of Lords as Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia in December 2020.
However, the details of the discussion between Johnson and Lebedev were never recorded, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Joseph Lloyd. The meeting was listed in the Prime Minister’s list of official engagements – suggesting that it was undertaken in a government capacity. However, no notes were seemingly made.
Speaking recently about another case of missing government minutes – the Department of Health’s meetings with the healthcare giant Randox – House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: “I would expect that government meetings that take place with people around would always be minuted.”
However, responding to the FOI request about the Johnson-Lebedev summit, the Cabinet Office said that it was “a personal/social meeting that took place in the Prime Minister’s residence” and that “no other information is held”.
Byline Times asked Downing Street and the Cabinet Office for further clarification, but received no response.
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A Long Friendship
Boris Johnson has a long-standing personal relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, who bought the Evening Standard newspaper in 2009 alongside his father, Alexander – when Johnson was Mayor of London – followed by his procurement of The Independent in 2010.
While Mayor of London, Johnson visited the Lebedevs at their palazzo near Perugia in Umbria, Italy, for four consecutive years from 2012 to 2015. These trips were paid for by Evgeny Lebedev, with a FOI request showing that the 2014 trip cost £2,625 for a two-night stay. Multiplied across the four years, this represents gifts worth more than £10,000.
Johnson continued this tradition when he was later appointed as Foreign Secretary – attending a party in London hosted by the Lebedevs in December 2017, described as a “vodka assault course” by one attendee, followed by a trip to Perugia in April 2018. Johnson seemingly abandoned his security team for the latter trip – a breach of government protocol – and was pictured at San Francesco d’Assisi airport looking dishevelled, clutching a book about war strategy.
The Guardian confirmed that Alexander Lebedev attended the April 2018 party in Perugia and met with Johnson.
A spokesperson for Lebedev senior said: “He goes [to Italy] often to stay with his son. He is in Europe a lot and has met pretty much all Evgeny’s friends here over the years. So there is nothing particularly unusual about the meeting.”
Alexander Lebedev’s background is certainly unusual, however, having served as a KGB spy in London from 1988 to 1992.
Moving into the financial sector, Lebedev amassed vast personal wealth – listed as the 39th richest Russian by Forbes in 2008, with an estimated wealth of $3.1 billion, which diminished after one of his Russian newspapers published an exposé about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his alleged affair with a famed gymnast.
Lebedev senior has in the past called for sanctions on Russian oligarchs living in London. “Non-domiciled foreigners [buy] from offshore with dirty money; they’ve invested a lot in property in this country and not given anything [back] but are depriving ordinary Londoners,” he has told the Guardian.
Though he has been critical of Putin, he is thought to retain close ties to the Kremlin and is understood to be in Moscow. Tortoise has reported that Alexander Lebedev even offered to Boris Johnson that he could mediate between the then Foreign Secretary and Putin following the Skripal poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury.
Alexander Lebedev did not respond to The Times’ enquiries about his links to the Kremlin. Evgeny Lebedev said that “all” of the claims made by The Times were incorrect, and did not “merit an answer”.
The Times’ further claims that Johnson took a special interest in ensuring that the Evening Standard – owned by the Lebedev family – received a “healthy share” of the Government’s COVID-19 advertising budget during the first wave of the pandemic.
As reported by Byline Times, the Government and the News Media Association negotiated a £35 million ‘All In, All Together’ deal to prop up big publications amid the Coronavirus crisis.
Other sources quoted in The Times article say that Boris Johnson was keen to ensure the survival of all newspapers, not just Lebedev’s Evening Standard. “He was even concerned about The Guardian,” quipped one ally.