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Sensemaker: The Johnson Affair

Sensemaker: The Johnson Affair

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Conservative MPs will begin voting in the contest to replace Boris Johnson as their leader and as Britain’s prime minister.
  • Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country after months of protests over its economic crisis.
  • England beat Norway eight goals to zero in the Women’s Euros, taking them to the quarter-finals.

The Johnson Affair

One meeting may come to define Boris Johnson’s political career. It was not a meeting about Brexit, or the Covid pandemic, or any of the many scandals that dogged his premiership. Instead, it was a private chat that took place on 28 April 2018.

What happened?

Italian job In March 2018, Russian military intelligence officials poisoned Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia with Novichok, setting off a diplomatic freeze with Moscow. In late April, a day after attending a Nato summit that focused on Russia, Johnson flew to Italy and met with former KGB officer-turned-oligarch Alexander Lebedev, without officials or his close protection officers.

The dodge Johnson has been avoiding questions about this trip for more than four years. I reported on it during my investigation into Johnson’s relationship with Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny. Thanks to Johnson, Evgeny is now a member of the House of Lords. During that investigation, We discovered that Alexander Lebedev wanted to set up a direct, unmonitored line between Johnson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The call never happened because Johnson overslept.

Confession Last Wednesday, Johnson finally admitted that the meeting had happened, when he was in front of the liaison committee, a group of MPs that gets to question the prime minister once a year. Johnson said he thought he mentioned the meeting later to officials – but it turns out the meeting with Alexander Lebedev was not on the Foreign Office’s transparency records.

To meet a former KGB officer just weeks after the Kremlin conducted a chemical attack on British soil is “unprecedented”, says Lord Ricketts, the UK’s first National Security Advisor and a former Joint Intelligence Committee chair. “I cannot think of an occasion where a foreign secretary, without anyone accompanying him at all, went and had a weekend with someone in an influential position with a sensitive security background,” he says.

Chris Steele, a former MI6 officer, went further, saying that the trip “needs to be properly investigated by the relevant authorities, which in this case is definitely the security service”.

Alexander Lebedev resigned all his UK directorships recently after the Canadian government sanctioned him for his ties to Putin, as Russia continues to wage war in Ukraine.

What we don’t know. In his ministerial hospitality register, Johnson said he made the trip “accompanied by a spouse, relative or friend”. But Johnson was alone in photos taken of him at Perugia airport on his way back to the UK. So, who went with him?

  • Johnson’s wife, then Carrie Symonds, may have joined him. It’s a chronology that makes sense. Their affair is believed to have started in early 2018, when Johnson was married to his second wife, Marina Wheeler. But Carrie Johnson’s spokesperson said she wasn’t “present” on the trip.
  • Another persistent rumour is that Johnson was accompanied by another young woman. When we put this woman’s name to Downing Street, we got a call back from Guto Harri, Johnson’s head of communications. He said he took it to the prime minister, who denies it.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has more questions: did the prime minister take papers with him from Nato to the meeting? Could his phone have been compromised? She also highlighted the risk posed by the undeclared and unidentified guest. If Johnson is found to have breached national security protocols, he should face the full consequence of the law: “It’s an absolute red line,” she says.

Rayner and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper have written to Kit Malthouse, the second-highest-ranking minister in the Cabinet Office, to demand a full investigation into his boss. Don’t hold your breath.


Airport crisis
London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world, said it would limit passenger numbers until mid September. It cited staff shortages, which have caused long queues, delays, lost luggage, and last-minute flight cancellations as justification. In an open letter to passengers, Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, asked airlines to stop selling new tickets, adding that service in recent weeks had dropped to a level that was “not acceptable”. Summer travel across Europe has been affected by the surge in demand for travel after Covid lockdowns. Adding to the chaos, airline staff across Europe have staged strikes over long hours and low pay in the face of rising inflation.


Longest unmanned flight
Airbus broke the record for the longest flight of an unmanned aircraft. Its solar-powered Zephyr S went from Arizona to Belize, and then back again. It has now spent 26 continuous days airborne, beating the record of 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes that it set in 2018. At the time of writing, it remains airborne. It provides two main advantages over other aircraft. It can take satellite photos without having to orbit Earth, so it can remain in one position and provide constant updates. It also can come back to its launchers, unlike satellites – which generally don’t return to Earth.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Cambridge suicides  
Cambridge University has launched an inquiry after five students died by suspected suicide between March and June. Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo says so far they’ve found “no common cause or clear linkages” between the deaths after working with the NHS and local authorities to review them. Shortly after Virgo’s statement the student union accused the university of a “series of failings” over the deaths, saying its recent suicide prevention strategy was designed to protect colleges from liability. In May, Bristol University was found liable for £50,000 in damages for failing to prevent the death of Natasha Abrahart, the first time a university has been held legally responsible for a student’s suicide in the UK. Maybe Cambridge fears similar accusations. Or maybe, after years of teaching and pastoral care being disrupted by the pandemic, universities are beginning to take action. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Much of Europe, the US and China are currently in the grips of a vicious heatwave. Heat warnings have been issued across 86 cities in China, wildfire alerts are in place across Portugal, the Texas power grid is struggling to keep up with demand as air-conditioner use increases and the UK’s Met Office has issued a rare Amber extreme heat warning for Sunday and Monday. A variety of natural meteorological phenomena from heat domes to the Azores High can be blamed. Ultimately, the extreme heat is because of climate change. Heatwaves kill –  especially in countries that aren’t adapted to cope. The main risks from extreme heat are dehydration, overheating and exhaustion. Over 65s, pregnant women and those with cardiovascular conditions are particularly vulnerable. We aren’t anywhere close to the worst of it. Sensemaker’s top tip: hang a wet sheet over an open window to help cool a room. 


Marriage in war
One side effect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the highlighting of a bid to legalise same-sex marriage in the country. A petition on the issue has gained 28,000 signatures and been submitted to President Zelensky for approval. Homosexuality is not illegal in Ukraine but same-sex marriages are not recognised. That means if someone who is LGBTQ+ enlists in the army, their partners have no rights if they are captured, hospitalised or killed. “It is important that LGBTQ people have the right to see their partner and take their body from the morgue, and seek compensation if needed,” Oksana Solonska from Kyiv Pride told the BBC. Zelensky has ten days to respond to the petition. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this round and, if you are experiencing the heatwave, tell us how it’s affecting your daily life. Email: sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Paul Caruana Galizia

With additional reporting by Nina Kuryata, Phoebe Davis and Lily Isaacs.

Photographs Getty Images, Parliament TV

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