Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
Boris Johnson held two unminuted meetings with Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev – a man he would shortly after make a peer – at the height of the build-up to the first Coronavirus lockdown, The COVID Inquiry has heard.
On Wednesday 18 March 2020, shortly after he gave a 5:30pm press conference on COVID-19 and met with the Chancellor, then Prime Minister Johnson had a 25-minute phone call with Lebedev at around 7:30pm.
The meeting appears to overlap with a ‘chat’ with then Health Secretary Matt Hancock, lasting just three minutes.
It is not immediately clear if Johnson took a break from his call with the press baron to speak to Hancock or if the Health Secretary joined the call for a brief period.
However, Johnson appears to have spent more time talking to Lebedev than his own Health Secretary over those two days.
In his press conference that same evening – one of the first of the national nightly broadcasts – Johnson had announced that all schools would close to staff and most pupils from that Friday until further notice.
It would be another five days before he declared a full national lockdown on Monday 23 March 2020. By then, Coronavirus cases were surging by the thousands and the number of deaths had surpassed 100 Brits.
Yet Johnson took more time to meet with Lebedev – this time in person – at around 6pm on 19 March, with his political secretary Ben Gascoine, and his director of communications Lee Cain, this time almost immediately after his press conference on COVID-19.
At the COVID Inquiry this week, inquiry barrister Hugo Keith KC asked of the meetings: “Do you know what it was about?”
Johnson’s own private secretary Martin Reynolds – who was implicated in the ‘Partygate’ scandal over his invite to drinks in the No 10 garden – said: “I don’t, I wasn’t present. There was no civil servant present.”
Asked if he knew Johnson was seeing Lebedev, Reynolds replied: “I would have done yes.”
Yet he appeared to have no knowledge of what was discussed: “I wouldn’t normally ask him for the content of his discussions… He was accompanied by his director of comms and his political secretary – both of whom are political.”
The inquiry lawyer appeared horrified. “At the height of the crisis he goes for a private meeting with Lebedev. Did you not ask him ‘why are you doing this PM’?”
Reynolds replied: “I can’t recall if I did, ultimately it’s for the PM to decide how to use his time… I may have said ‘are you sure you want to do this?’”
According to Gabriel Pogrund and Harry Yorke reporting in The Times, Johnson “was particularly anxious to ensure the Evening Standard — by then a struggling free sheet, its circulation crashing because of the collapse in commuting — received a healthy share of the Government’s Covid-19 advertising budget during the first wave of the pandemic.”
The advertising budget, which former Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings described as “covid bungs”, funnelled hundreds of millions of subsidies in the form of Government advertising into a select group of newspapers. The Times reports that Boris Johnson “personally asked Alex Aitken, executive director for government communication, to ensure the Standard benefited from the agreements.”
Just a few months later, in July 2020, Lebedev was controversially nominated for a life peerage for “philanthropy and services to the media”.
Evgeny Lebedev – who now sits as Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation in the UK’s House of Lords – is the Russian-born son of ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, though he is now a British citizen. He has only spoken in the Lords once since becoming a peer, in May 2021.
The House of Lords Appointment Committee, which vets Lords nominations, strongly advised Johnson against giving the media baron – who also part-owns The Independent newspaper – a peerage over alleged security concerns. Johnson overruled the committee to force the peerage through.
Johnson and Lebedev had been close friends since the politician’s London mayoral days, when the Evening Standard owner flew him out to Italy for several ‘free’ holidays at a luxury villa. Alexander Lebedev was present for at least one of these trips.
The Evening Standard relies on commuters for its circulation and therefore ad revenue. Lebedev would have had an interest in the issue of people working from home – though there is no suggestion of wrongdoing. Johnson had already asked people to work from home “if you can”.
Johnson had told the public that evening: “I do think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks. And I am absolutely confident that we can send Coronavirus packing in this country but only if we take the steps, we all take the steps we have outlined.”
On 27 March 2020, the then Prime Minister contracted COVID. Despite this, many of the illegal gatherings in Whitehall happened after this point.
Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org