Johnson’s Visit to the LebedevsA Dire State Not A ‘Deep State’
There is no such thing as ‘private business’ when you’re Foreign Secretary, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall
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When I read the reports that Boris Johnson, while Foreign Secretary, had ditched his security detail while staying at the luxury Italian villa of former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, it reminded me of what it was like when I had to endure security protection everywhere I went. This was from 2009 to 2011, when I was the Deputy Head of Mission (Deputy Ambassador) in Bogota, Colombia.
With parts of the country still mired in deadly violence between leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and criminal drug cartels, it was deemed necessary to offer close protection to both the Ambassador and myself, as the most visible representatives of the British presence in Colombia.
We were considered to be at risk because the British Government was one of the most active international players in trying to break up the cartels controlling the drug trade, which financed all parties to the conflict, as well as fuelling crime and drug addiction both in Colombia and the UK.
So, immediately upon arrival in Bogota, I found myself being driven everywhere in an armoured car and accompanied by at least two armed security guards every time I stepped foot out of my apartment. I could not go down the street for a coffee or arrange an impromptu get together with a friend without notifying the guards first. My husband and I were allowed to go for walks in the beautiful countryside around Bogota, but only on paths where the armoured car could drive closely behind us, somewhat spoiling the effect of being in nature.
Whether I was going to or from an official meeting, dropping my young son off at kindergarten, or simply taking my dog for a walk, I was never alone.
There were times when this felt oppressive, not least because – also for security reasons – most embassy staff lived in secure blocks of flats, with no outside garden space. Spontaneity was impossible, as was privacy with my family, anywhere outside the home. The security guards accompanied us, even when we were on holiday.
There were also moments when this was acutely embarrassing. Like the time when, after a stressful week, I decided to relax by watching a silly chick-flick at the local cinema, only to find out it contained several quite intimate sex scenes. It was excruciating to be watching this, sitting right next to my security guard.
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On other occasions, the security provided moments of levity. One time, my husband and I went to a Coldplay concert, followed at a discreet distance by one of our guards. A fellow concert-goer anxiously tapped me on the shoulder and said “I think you ought to know, there is some disreputable fellow who seems to be following you”.
Another time, our family was travelling to a remote part of Colombia, with an additional police escort on top of our regular security detail. My son, who was potty training at the time, suddenly announced he needed “to go” and couldn’t wait. This necessitated phone calls all the way up and down the line to bring our long convoy to a halt, searches of all the surrounding bushes, and the establishment of a ring of armed guards around the potty, before my son was allowed to descend from the car. Unsurprisingly, under such scrutiny, he was unable to pull the trigger, meaning we had to repeat the performance several times every few miles down the road, until finally nature took its course.
So, I understand that a security detail can be irksome, especially when you think you are on private business.
However, I was given a very stern lecture by my predecessor that I must never, ever, take the security for granted, or ever try to evade it. He gave me three excellent reasons: first, the security was there for a genuine reason; second, it was an extremely expensive operation, funded by British taxpayer; third, it would be grossly disrespectful to the guards themselves, who were highly trained professionals, ready to risk their own lives for that of me and my family.
I took these lessons profoundly to heart and, though I sometimes wished ‘to be alone’, I always tried to respect the security rules and the duties of the guards trying to protect me.
When Johnson skipped off by himself, he breached all three of these rules – showing a cavalier disregard, not just for his own safety, but for the professionalism and the role of his guards and for the British taxpayer.
But Johnson’s jaunt to Lebedev’s villa offends for many other reasons as well.
I also learned early on that, when you are a British diplomat, there is no such thing as ‘private business’ – you are on duty all the time.
Even a relatively junior British diplomat risks being tailed by foreign security services, with any minor lapse in behaviour providing an opportunity for blackmail.
As you rise up the hierarchy, you become more recognisable, meaning at any time you might be approached by a contact or stranger, requesting a meeting, asking for a favour, or – as I experienced very often through my career – seeking help to get a British visa.
Even if Johnson thought he was merely attending a social event, of course every person he met there would know who he was, and be taking careful note of what he said and did.
Despite having to attend endless cocktail parties, diplomats also have to learn to control their alcohol intake – both to avoid blurting out secrets or committing any other form of indiscretion which might reflect badly on your country.
You cannot afford to be drunk, simply because you need to be ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice, in the event of a crisis. Several eyewitness accounts say that, at the airport for his flight back home, Johnson appeared unsteady on his feet and openly admitted he had had a “heavy night”. Who knows what he might have said or done over the weekend to bring his office into disrepute and lay himself open to pressure?
In his letter to the Liaison Committee this week, Johnson claims that “as far as I am aware, no Government business was discussed” during his stay in Italy. Since he was the only British official present, how can he not be aware of whether he did or did not discuss Government business? Was he too drunk not to notice or remember? Or is he unable to distinguish between polite social chit chat and official conversations? Either way, it is not a reassuring disclaimer.
Many people have piped up in Johnson’s defence to note that he has been one of the most hawkish Western leaders on Russia, and most stalwart defenders of Ukraine, and used this as evidence that he has not allowed British security interests to be compromised by his association with the Lebedevs. But my response to that is: how do we know?
Perhaps his closeness with the Lebedevs led Putin to underestimate or miscalculate how the British would respond to an invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps Johnson gossiped about his colleagues’ personal lives, making them vulnerable to Russian pressure in future. Perhaps the Lebedevs acquired some compromising material on Johnson himself, which they simply have decided not to deploy yet. Who knows?
If Johnson himself can barely remember what he talked about during his stay, how can we be confident he did not inadvertently divulge something useful to the Russians?
The bottom line is that, as Britain’s top diplomat at the time, Johnson should not have been consorting with former KGB agents. He should not have been going to such events alone. And he should not have allowed himself to get so drunk that he cannot give a proper account of what took place there.
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Diplomats need to undergo regular security vetting to be sure there is nothing about them which could compromise British security. As part of that process, line managers are also asked to complete a form commenting on the personal lives of their staff – whether they behave with decorum in all settings, whether they mix with the right people, or are suspected of taking drugs or over indulging in alcohol.
By any such measure, I believe Boris Johnson would never have been granted security clearance to become a British diplomat, had he applied through the normal Civil Service competition. His private life would be deemed to be too shambolic; his association with the truth to be too loose; and his choice of associates to be too suspicious.
If I had been his line manager, my security report would probably have read something like this:
“Boris Johnson is as dishevelled in his private life as he is in his appearance. On the sexual front, he is known to have had affairs with numerous women outside his marriages, and to have fathered several children out of wedlock, not all of whom he has acknowledged as his own. It therefore cannot be discounted that there are more women or more children out there with a story to tell.
“His finances are a disaster, while his current wife has expensive tastes, making him susceptible to bribery.
“He also over-indulges in alcohol and, whether drunk or sober, has a tendency to blurt out undiplomatic remarks, causing widespread offence. He has on occasion made overtly misogynist or racist remarks.
“He is also a compulsive liar, who, even when found out, doubles-down with even more fantastic lies and excuses to justify his actions.
“His ambition is over-weening and, though I know he believes that becoming an Ambassador is his rightful due, I seriously question whether he has the discipline or temperament to make a success of this role. Despite having a certain shallow wit and charm about him, which seduces some of his colleagues and contacts, even they do not inherently trust or respect him.
“His choice of friends is also highly suspect, and are known to include the son of a former Russian KGB agent.
“I therefore do not believe he is suited to more senior roles. My strong recommendation is that he not be granted clearance, but instead be assigned to an inconsequential function, involving no interaction with foreigners, and no access to classified material.”
What a shame no one wrote such a security report on him years ago, barring Johnson from holding any public office.
In one of his last appearances at the despatch box, he lashed out at a so-called “Deep State”, which he accused of trying to take the UK back into the EU. But I fear we face a different problem – that after six years of misrule and scandal, Johnson has left his country, his party, and his own reputation in A Dire State.
Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity