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Boris Johnson Accused Of "Deflecting Attention” From Meeting With Ex-KGB Agent

Former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny, who met Boris Johnson at a party in Italy in 2018 (Alamy)

4 min read

A senior Labour MP has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “deflect attention” from his meeting with ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev without officials present when he was Foreign Secretary by highlighting connections other MPs have to his media mogul son.

In a letter to the Commons liaison committee published on Tuesday, Johnson confirmed that he met major newspaper proprietor Lord Evgeny Lebedev's father, Alexander Lebedev, a former colonel in the Soviet KGB, at a private party held at peer’s Italian castle in 2018. 

Johnson admitted for the first time earlier this month that he had met the elder Lebedev at the party in April 2018, when he was quizzed by the committee, but was asked to follow up with further detail to the committee. 

The gathering has long been a subject of scrutiny after it emerged that Johnson, who was foreign secretary at the time, travelled there without a security detail or any Foreign Office officials, and produced no record of who he had met with at the event. 

While Johnson has now clarified that he did interact with the former KGB agent at the event, he has insisted that no official government business was discussed “as far as I am aware”, and said his conduct was “in line with established security protocols” despite his decision to travel alone. 

“At this social event, I also met Evgeny Lebedev’s father. This was not a formal meeting, nor something that was pre-arranged,” Johnson wrote in the letter. 

He said his officials were “aware in advance” about the event and it was not unusual for them not to accompany him, "contrary to some reports".

“It would not have been normal practice for civil servants or security staff to have accompanied me to such a private, social occasion," he continued. "I did not take ministerial papers with me.”

Johnson also implied that his relationship with Lord Evgeny Lebedev was no more inappropriate than some Labour MPs who have also met with him, noting that the Labour Party's records show "considerable engagement" by the shadow cabinet with Lord Lebedev "and attendance at his social events".

Records include meetings with Chris Bryant, the chair of the Standards Committee, and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Both MPs have been persistent in trying to extract information from the prime minister relating to visit to Lebedev's castle. 

But Bryant has accused Johnson of trying to distract from his own conduct by drawing attention to the meetings with Labour MPs, which were already publicly known. 

“Mr Johnson seems to be in denial that he is leaving office in disgrace. This is just another instance of him casting aspersions to deflect attention,” Bryant told PoliticsHome

The Labour MP said he simply wrote a column for the Lebedev-owned Independent newspaper, "but I have never compromised national security as Mr Johnson seems to have done”.

Cooper has also written for the Independent, as well as the Evening Standard which is also owned by Lebedev, and met with him for lunch. The meeting was disclosed in Labour Party transparency documents from pre-2016.Johnson elevated Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords in 2020, where he sits as a crossbench peer with the title Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Deputy Leader said Johnson’s “mealy-mouthed statement” raised more questions than it answered, and that his “carelessness with words” had put people in danger while he was Foreign Secretary.

“Keeping the British people safe should be a priority of government, but this web of murky relationships shows the Conservatives cannot be trusted with our national security,” she added.

“The Prime Minister claims the meeting wasn’t pre-arranged and yet also says officials had been made aware in advance, but he apparently still can’t recall whether he discussed government business or not.”

A record of the trip was initially disclosed by Johnson in the register of MPs’ interests, which recorded that he had an “overnight stay” with Evgeny Lebedev on Saturday, 28 April 2018, travelling “accompanied by a spouse, family member or friend”.

A picture later emerged of Johnson at the airport on his way home from the stay at the restored castle looking dishevelled, which took place after he attended a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels that discussed the security situation with Russia following the poisonings in Salisbury.

The scrutiny also comes amid an investigation by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee over the appointment to the House of Lords of Evgeny, after allegations the peerage was granted despite a warning from the security services that it posed a national security risk.

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