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LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 07: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) (L to R) Boris Johnson, Evgeny Lebedev and Rachel Johnson attend the London Evening Standard’s 1000 Most Influential Londoners at Burberry Regent Street on November 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
The Johnson Affair

The Johnson Affair

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 07: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) (L to R) Boris Johnson, Evgeny Lebedev and Rachel Johnson attend the London Evening Standard’s 1000 Most Influential Londoners at Burberry Regent Street on November 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

A former KGB officer, the foreign secretary, and an Italian palazzo in the wake of the Skripal poisonings – the meeting that may come to define Boris Johnson’s political career

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.

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