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Londongrad revisited

Londongrad revisited


Boris Johnson has finally admitted to meeting a former KGB officer without officials in a palace in Italy. Why does it matter?

“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister.”

Boris Johnson resignation speech

Last week Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party.

But it’s something he said the day before quitting, whilst being grilled by senior MPs on the Liaison Committee, that really stands out.

Diana Johnson: “Could you just confirm, and I’d just appreciate a yes or a no, that you met with the former KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev, when you were foreign secretary, without officials, on the 28 April 2018?”

Boris Johnson: “I’d have to check.”

Diana Johnson: “Are you having a lapse of memory again?”

The Committee pressed for an answer.

Dame Meg Hillier: “You said you met him without officials. Presumably that was when you were Mayor of London. When you were Foreign Secretary, did you meet Alexander Lebedev without officials?”

Boris Johnson: “I think I probably did, but—”

Dame Meg Hillier: “Probably did? “

And eventually got one.

Dame Meg Hillier: “As foreign secretary?” 

Boris Johnson: “On the occasion you mention, if that was when I was foreign secretary, then yes.”

Dame Meg Hillier: “Without officials?” 

Boris Johnson: “Yes. That makes sense.”

But that wasn’t all. 

Because Boris Johnson eventually specified where he met Alexander Lebedev.

“I met him in Italy, as it happens, but I really, you know—”

Liaison Committee, 6 June

Over the past few months my colleague at Tortoise, Paul Caruana Galizia, has been reporting a series called Londongrad.

It’s about how the Lebedevs muscled their way into the heart of the British establishment.

Alexander is a former Russian spy, his son is Evgeny. Together they bought the Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers.

And crucial to their ascent in Britain is Boris Johnson.

“I, Evgeny, Lord Lebedev, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I’ll be faithful…”

Lord Lebedev being sworn into the House of Lords

Boris Johnson sent Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords, against the warnings of security services.

And he partied with him too.

In April 2018, when he was foreign secretary, Boris Johnson went to the Lebedev’s palazzo in Perugia for a weekend hosted by Evgeny. Johnson travelled there without his officials or close protection officers. 

Afterwards Boris Johnson was photographed alone at the airport, bedraggled. 

Looking like he might be hungover…

But what about the party itself?

Well, Alexander Lebedev was also at the palace that weekend – and something pretty extraordinary happened. 

The former KGB spy tried to set up an unmonitored call between Boris Johnson, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. 

This came just weeks after the Kremlin ordered a poisoning on British soil.

“Although he asks a general question about Russia, let me immediately say that there is much speculation about the disturbing incident in Salisbury, where a 66-year-old man, Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious outside the Maltings shopping centre on Sunday afternoon.”

Boris Johnson speaking in House of Commons

In the end the call didn’t happen, because Boris Johnson overslept.

But it’s worth taking in.

Just weeks after a Russian chemical attack in Salisbury, the foreign secretary met someone who has since been sanctioned by Canada for his links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

There are still lots of unanswered questions about Boris Johnson’s trip to Italy in April 2o18.

This was Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaking in the House of Commons after the prime minister’s appearance at the Liaison Committee.

“The record of ministers’ interests says that the foreign secretary accepted hospitality in Italy for himself and a guest, but he travelled home alone. Who was that guest? And did that put him in a compromising position?”

Yvette Cooper speaking in House of Commons

One rumour is that Boris Johnson went with a woman with whom he had an affair.

Paul Caruana Galizia put that to the Prime Minister’s director of communications.

“Guto Harri told me that he took this claim to the prime minister, who vehemently denies it. If you publish this, he told me, then the prime minister will sue and you can be the first to contribute to his retirement fund.
“I don’t need to tell you, he continued, how substantial damages will be.

“When I asked why they can’t just tell me who was with him, when we know so much about all his relationships and parties anyway, and why this one in particular is so secret, Guto Harri told me: there’s no public interest in who someone got on a flight with.

“Let’s not pretend, he said. This is not about the public interest. It’s a voyeuristic obsession with his sex life.

“When I said that Boris Johnson was the foreign secretary, Guto Harri said: So what?”

Paul Caruana Galizia, Londongrad: The Johnson Affair

So what?

We’ll leave Chris Steele, a former spy who ran the Russia desk at MI6, to answer that.

Chris Steele: “So I think the implications are very serious and I don’t know what was, what transpired at that meeting, and I don’t know whether there was a phone call to Lavrov on the agenda and whether that took place or not.

“But that’s not really the point. The point is that this scenario is one which is extremely, potentially, compromising to both Johnson personally, and also the country and its interest. And that’s why we need to get to the bottom of it.”

Paul Caruana Galizia: “In your career, have you ever encountered anything like this?”

Chris Steele: “No frankly, on any number of counts, but certainly not the Italy scenario as it’s now emerging.”

Londongrad: The Johnson Affair

Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister is nearly over. 

But questions remain about his conduct in office… and about what really happened at that palace in Italy.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.