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Johnson had a pandemic to deal with, but he also had a friend to promote

Johnson had a pandemic to deal with, but he also had a friend to promote

People sick with Covid were filling up hospitals, infections were spreading far and wide, and deaths were rising rapidly. It was the third week of March 2020 – and Britain was in crisis. On 19 March, during his regular Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson told the country it could “turn the tide” on Covid in 12 weeks by “avoiding unnecessary contact” and “gatherings”.

That same day, at his private residence at Downing Street, the Prime Minister met with representatives of Lebedev Holdings, a company that owns the Evening Standard and is controlled by Evgeny Lebedev. The Cabinet Office told me that it didn’t have information on who attended the meeting aside from Johnson or what they discussed, but said the meeting was “personal/social”.

Johnson always made time for Lebedev.

  • They first met for lunch in 2010, when Johnson was London’s mayor, at Magdalen restaurant on Tooley Street. Johnson, in a follow up letter called it an “excellent lunch” and said they discussed the Russian Arts Festival. After their next lunch, Lebedev gave Johnson a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Diary.
  • To mark the start of the London Olympics in 2012, Johnson personally invited Lebedev to the mayor’s Host City Reception. Later in the year, Lebedev invited Johnson to his Palazzo Terranova villa in Umbria, paying for two nights’ accommodation and two return flights. The Umbria trip would repeat itself for the following six years.
  • In February 2016, Johnson invited Lebedev to a private dinner at his Islington home where he was agonising over whether to back Brexit. Other guests included Michael Gove and his then wife, Sarah Vine. Oliver Letwin dialled in and tried in vain to persuade Johnson to come out for Remain. Lebedev was focused on the food, but witnessed it all. Later that month, Johnson announced his support for Vote Leave, paving his way to Number Ten.

The Standard, Lebedev’s newspaper, which had supported Johnson as mayor, went on to support his campaign to become Prime Minister. A day after Johnson was elected to the top job in December 2019, he went to Lebedev’s vodka and caviar party in honour of Lebedev’s former-KGB-officer father’s 60th birthday. A few weeks later, Johnson used his prime ministerial powers to personally nominate Lebedev to the upper chamber of parliament at the start of 2020, sending his name to the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

The Commission, which can vet but not veto nominees, was a mixed bag.

  • Lord (Paul) Bew: a historian from Northern Ireland whose contributions to the Good Friday Agreement earned him a seat in the Lords as a cross-bencher. His son, John Bew, is also an historian – and a member of Johnson’s elite Policy Unit where he advises the Prime Minister on foreign affairs. In a 2021 report called “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, he described Russia as an “acute threat”.
  • Rt Hon and Rt Rev Lord Richard Chartres KCVO: a retired bishop of the Church of England, once the Bishop of London, and who sits in the Lords as a cross-bencher. (The House of Lords keeps a number of seats for Anglican bishops).
  • The Lord-Lieutenant of Belfast, Mrs Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle CBE DL: a former lobbyist whose largely ceremonial role, as the Queen’s representative in Belfast, doesn’t come with a seat in the Lords.
  • Lord (David) Clark of Windermere: a Labour stalwart who was Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Tony Blair. Clark has been critical of Johnson’s nominations to the Lords. Blair ennobled him in 2001.
  • Baroness (Angela) Browning: a former Conservative MP who was David Cameron’s Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Antisocial Behaviour Reduction. Cameron elevated her to the Lords in 2010. Four years later, when she was working for a political consultancy firm and occupying her seat in the Lords, Cameron appointed her to the government’s lobbying watchdog.
  • Baroness (Kate) Parminter: worked in the charity sector for many years before being made a life peer by the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

When the commissioners received Lebedev’s nomination, they began their vetting process. This normally involves, with the nominee’s consent, an examination of their tax situation, plus a media review and sometimes checks with the Electoral Commission. But the commissioners can go to any government department they think relevant. In Lebedev’s case, concerned about his father’s past, they went to the intelligence agencies.

When the vetting report finally came back to them, the commissioners met in Committee Room 2, between 1 and 3pm on 17 March 2020, to discuss it. The report flagged Lebedev as a national security risk because of his father’s past and his current contacts. They quickly wrote to Johnson, advising him against the nomination and recommending an alternative nominee, which brings us back to the 19 March 2020 meeting at Downing Street.

It took ITV’s Robert Peston three on-background government sources to establish that the meeting was between Johnson and Lebedev himself and that, almost certainly, they discussed the nomination. Peston’s sources told him they were very surprised that Johnson, given the pandemic and the sheer strangeness of Lebedev’s nomination, was so insistent on pushing ahead with it. 

He sent Lebedev’s name back to the commissioners, saying their concerns were “Russophobic” and that the security assessment was about Lebedev’s father, not the man himself. The commissioners reluctantly signed off on the appointment, creating Lord Lebedev, Baron of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames and Siberia in the Russian Federation.

My Freedom of Information request for material on  the 19 March 2020 meeting revealed only that it was a “personal/social” meeting. The Cabinet Office told me it held no other information. When I submitted an FoI to the Cabinet Office for any material it prepared or received on Lebedev’s nomination, it told me it needed more time to decide whether disclosure was in the public interest. I submitted the request on 8 December 2021. I submitted an FoI to the House of Lords Appointments Commission for anything it had on Lebedev’s appointment but, with a 20-working-day delay, all I received was heavily redacted documents and emails. 

There is, by design, no way of knowing exactly how people get into the upper chamber of parliament. The Commission assures nominees that their information will be handled in the strictest confidence, so it says it can’t disclose any material they have on them. The Cabinet Office routinely denies any FoI requests.

This needs to change. Members of the Lords can exercise real power and control over our lives – and, in Lebedev’s case, we’re not even allowed to see what his security assessment was concerned about.

Over the weekend, Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, called for an investigation. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, insisted there was “no impropriety”. The Sunday Times pursued the story on its front page. Last week, Baroness Smith, the opposition leader in the Lords, referred in chamber to Tortoise’s work on Lebedev and called for a more transparent appointments process; Lord Cormack then cited Lebedev as an example of why it’s needed.

It could all be simpler. Both the government and Commission could publish the advice they receive on nominees as a rule. Both bodies could publish their rationale for supporting or not supporting nominees. And they could start by publishing the material they received on Lord Lebedev