Scandal Or Hot Air? Boris Johnson And The Lebedevs

A photo of Lebedev's villa with Alexander and Eygeny either side of Boris Johnson who are superimposed over the home
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There has always been controversy with who Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with. From his “marmite” love-him-hate-him advisor Dominic Cummings to his failures to declare personal friendships that may affect how he governs[1]The Guardian: Johnson was briefed on declaring friendships before he met Jennifer Arcuri Johnson has always played fast and loose with the rules.

During a grilling by the Parliamentary Liaison Committee over Johnson’s integrity in office after the fallout from the Chris Pincher scandal (a man Johnson promoted knowing he was accused of sexual misconduct who went on to commit even more sexual misconduct), the committee turned to a meeting between Alexander Lebedev, a Russian citizen with a questionable past in politics, and then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson which happened under unusual and less than ideal circumstances – and maybe even broke ministerial code and legal protocols.

So, who are the Lebedevs in question (because there’s more than one), what did Boris Johnson do, when did they meet and what is the future for the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister of the UK? Read on to find out!

Who Is Alexander Lebedev?

Alexander Lebedev was born in Russia (or the Soviet Union as it was then) in 1959. His father was an elite polo player who later became a lecturer at Moscow’s highest technical school and his mother was a teacher of English[2]Wikipedia: Alexander Lebedev.

Lebedev studied economics at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and after graduating in 1982 went on to work at the Institute of Economics of the World Socialist System.

So far, no normal – well, not for long

The KGB Connection

At some point after this Lebedev was recruited into the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti – Committee For State Security). Presumably because of his good English skills thanks to his mother, he was transferred to the Soviet embassy in London in 1988 and held a position in the Foreign Intelligence Service until 1992.

Post-KGB Business

He left the intelligence service in 1992 – although some debate whether he truly left with Donald Rayfield, emeritus professor of Russian at London University stating:

“… Remember it’s very difficult to retire from the KGB. They don’t have a procedure for that.”[3]Byline Times: Sweeney Investigates: What Changed To Make Evgeny Lebedev No Longer a Security Risk?

He founded an investment company which then went on to purchase a failing bank in 1995 and by 2008, Lebedev had become the 39th wealthiest Russian worth an estimated $3.1 billion. He also bought Novaya Gazeta an opposition newspaper which had four of its journalists murdered over a decade[4]Campaign: From Russia with cash: who is Alexander Lebedev?

But, his world would soon come tumbling down. After one of his Russian newspapers published a story about Putin dating a ballerina while he was married all of a sudden his bank began to have issues and haemorrhaged money and he lost his billionaire status. Following on from this, Lebedev strangely dropped his open criticism of Putin and became more vocal in his support which included backing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014[5]The Times:Press tycoon tried to win support for Putin.

UK Media Influence

In 2009 Lebedev bought a controlling stake in The Evening Standard, the flagship newspaper of London and in 2010 purchased the Independant and sister paper The Independent On Sunday for £1[6]The Guardian: Alexander Lebedev’s Evening Standard takeover: Dacre announces sale to staff.

He promised not to interfere in the running of The Evening Standard and later transferred ownership to his son Evgeny.

Lebedev still had links to The Independent until 2022 when he stepped down as director of Independent Print Ltd following further sanctions placed on him by Canada due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions were rather embarrassing to the UK government who, as far as I can tell at the time of writing, have not placed any similar sanctions on Lebedev senior or Junior.

Oh and if he doesn’t like what you say he’ll just punch you in the face.

Maybe that’s why he’s not sanctioned – no one fancies a right hook from him.

How Is Lebedev Involved With Boris Johnson?

In 2018, Boris Johnson was Foreign Minister in Theresa May’s government and was therefore responsible for liaising with NATO as it dealt with the implications of the Skripal poisoning.

If you’re not familiar with the case, Sergei and his daughter Yulia Skripal were poisoned using a substance called Novichok in Salisbury, England on the 4th March 2018.

The pair fortunately survived, as did a police officer who came into contact with the nerve agent, however the poisoning led to the death of Dawn Sturgess, months later in June 2018, after her boyfriend came across a container of what he thought was perfume but was in fact the deadly Novichok agent.

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It is thought that Sergei Skripal was targeted as he was a former KGB agent and double agent for the UK Intelligence services who had come to the UK in 2010 as part of a prisoner swap deal[7]Sky New Special Report: The Salisbury Poisonings. The government combed through CCTV footage and came across footage of two suspects who were charged with the poisoning. The pair laughably appeared on Russian media claiming they were merely in Salisbury to look at the catherdral (which is a lovely building but not worth a trip from Moscow)

The UK accused the Russian State of attempted murder (Sturgess had yet to come into contact with Novichok at this point), however NATO saw this as a much more serious event – the use of a chemical weapon on a NATO member state – which led to heavy sanctions being imposed on Russia over the incident[8]The Guardian: Boris Johnson and the Lebedevs: how I exposed the prime minister’s defining scandal.

This is where things start to get a little interesting.

Select Committee Hearing

The then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attended a NATO meeting on the 27th April 2018 where the actions to be taken against Russia were discussed.

Johnson then left that meeting and, without the usual security detail that would accompany someone in the position of Foreign Secretary and flew to Italy where he met with Alexander Lebedev on the 28th April 2018 with no other officials present.

Johnson was questioned by the House of Commons Liaison Committee on the 6th July 2022 (you can read a full transcript here in HTML format or download a PDF). During questioning the following exchange took place:

Dame Diana Johnson: My final question. Could you confirm—I would appreciate a yes or a no—that you met former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev without officials when you were Foreign Secretary on 28 April 2018?
The Prime Minister: I would have to check.
DDJ: Are you having a lapse of memory again?
PM: No. You are asking me a very specific question about a very specific date. I would have to get back to you. I certainly have met the gentleman in question —
DDJ: Without officials?
PM: He was the proprietor of the London Evening Standard when I was Mayor of London. I am certainly not going to deny having met Alexander Lebedev. I certainly have. As far as I remember, he used to own the London Evening Standard.
DDJ: Yes, but with officials when you were Foreign Secretary. Did you meet him with officials or without?
PM: Look, I have certainly met him without officials. As I say, he is a proprietor of a newspaper.
Chair: Perhaps you could write to us with a specific answer to that very specific question.
PM: Very happy to.
Dame Meg Hillier: Can I just follow that up, Prime Minister? 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?
PM: I think I probably did, but —
DMH: Probably did?
PM: As I say, I would need to check.
DMH: You are used to regularly meeting him? “Probably” because you meet him often or “probably” because you can’t remember?
PM: I have met him on a very few occasions —
DMH: As Foreign Secretary?
PM: On the occasion you mention, if that was when I was Foreign Secretary, then yes.
DMH: Without officials?
PM: Yes. That makes sense, yes.
DMH: Did you report to your officials that you had met him?
PM: I think I did mention it, yes.
Chair: And where did you meet him?
PM: I met him in Italy, as it happens, but I really, you know —
Chair: Perhaps you will write to us.
DMH: Was it a personal engagement?
Chair: We will move on…..

So basically the above transcript is The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom admitting to going to visit a known ex-KGB agent without any other officials or security with him, the day after having been briefed by NATO over what action they were looking to take over the Russian use of Novichok on a NATO member’s soil.

This is an exceptionally strange move by Johnson and one that could have put national security at risk.

We don’t know what was said during that meeting as it wasn’t recorded but given that witnesses apparently saw Johnson at an airport in Italy near to Lebedev’s residence looking “like he’d slept in his clothes” and was “struggling to walk in a straight line”[9]The Guardian: Boris Johnson admits to private meeting with ex-KGB agent we can infer that it was a pretty sociable meeting if you know what I mean. One MI6 Officer is reported as saying “Boris Johnson is compromised. No one believes he went to the Palazzo just to sip orange juice.”

What’s even more astonishing was that Johnson noted the “overnight stay” on the Record of Ministers Interests and no one thought to look into it.

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Back in the 1960s, Minister for War John Profumo was forced to resign after lying about his affair with Christine Keeler. She wasn’t KGB herself but she was sleeping with a Russian spy named Yevgeny Ivanov.

So a man has an affair with a woman who is also sleeping with a spy and he has to resign but the man who actually sat down face to face alone with a known (ex) Russian spy with no one else present kept his job.

If you’d like to know more about The Profumo affair I can highly recommend the “British Scandal” podcast from Wondery that has a short series on The Profumo Affair, while it doesn’t going in to the spying allegations it does humanise Keeler and explains her background and motivation which seems to be lacking in other stories about the affair.

This certainly sheds new light on why Boris Johnson tried so hard to bury The Russia Report which investigated links between UK Politics and Russia, especially surrounding Brexit[10]Wikipedia: Intelligence and Security Committee Russia report. Spoiler Alert! It found substantial evidence that Russian interference in British politics is commonplace.

Well if you have a Foreign Secretary visiting ex-KGB it probably would be common place.

But, if you think that was the worst of it? Nope! There’s more!

The Scandal Continues: Lebedev Junior And His Peerage

Johnson seems to have become friends with Evgeny Lebedev, Alexander’s son, while he was Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, visiting Lebedv’s Italian home at least four times[11]The Guardian: Boris Johnson refuses to answer questions over party in Lebedev mansion [12]OpenDemocracy: Revealed: Boris, the Russian oligarch and the Page 3 model[13]BBC Ros Atkins Explainer video.

The younger Lebedev also has a dog named Boris, but I’m not sure that that’s the compliment everyone thinks it is…

The controversy with Evgeny centres around him being awarded a peerage by Boris Johnson in 2020.

For those who aren’t aware, the Prime Minister can award a peerage to someone which allows them to have a seat in the House of Lords. They don’t have to be a politician, or even politically inclined, they just need to be in the Prime Minister’s good books. This peerage allows them to vote on and amend bills that are sent up from the House of Commons so it’s not just a fancy gift, it has real implication in UK politics.

The appointment of Lebedev Junior caused some serious concerns within the security community – concerns that dated all the way back to 2013[14]Wikipedeia: Evgeny Lebedev.

The House of Lords Appointment Committee (who oversee the appointment of peerages) advised against the appointment of Lebedev due to security concerns from MI5 but Johnson overrode them and Lebedev took position as a peer in December 2020. The Government have so far refused to release any of the security advice surrounding the appointment even after being instructed to by the Commons.

I don’t think anyone needed to have worried though, since his appointment and making his maiden speech to the House of Lords in May 2021 (something that seems to be a requirement), he hasn’t spoken or voted once.

He’s also only attended the House of Lords 3 times in 17th December 2020, 12th May 2021 and 24th November 2021[15]Insider: Lord Lebedev’s peerage under spotlight after his lack of contribution to Parliament since maiden speech that we know for fact.

You need to attend at least once during a parliamentary session which is around 6 months or you can be suspended[16]Institute For Government: Joining and leaving the House of Lords so Lebedev narrowly escaped a suspension and I can’t find any data as to whether he’s sat during the current parliamentary session but I’m assuming he must have as it’s not been reported he’s been suspended.

So I would hazard a guess he’s just using his peerage for social and financial clout at the moment however there’s nothing to say he’s not playing a long game and biding his time – he’s only 42 after all and peerages are for life so he has plenty of time to enact a game plan if he has one.

Lebedev Junior & The Putin Question

Evgeny Lebedev has made much of the fact that he’s never met Vladimir Putin but seeing as current supporters of far right fascism have never met Hitler that’s a bit of a moot point.

Lebedev has also made a great show of saying how “independent” his newspaper The Independent is, and yet it’s been used as a vehicle for pro-Putin content. In January 2020, just a couple of months before Lebedev’s peerage was announced an article by Mary Dejevsky was published with the title “The idea that Putin wants to wield supreme power from behind the throne is questionable”[17]The Independent: The idea that Putin wants to wield supreme power from behind the throne is questionable.

Does he have ties to Putin? Who knows but his father does – they served in the KGB together after all, and Lebedev senior became pro-Putin after a financial setback.

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As they say “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

That’s conjecture though (saying that for legal reasons), there’s no proof that Lebedev junior is a supporter of Putin and articles in The Independent are written and edited outside of Evgeny’s control (allegedly). I’m just saying it seems weird to allow such pro-Putin content when you’re trying to distance yourself from him.

What Next For Johnson?

With Johnson’s resignation he’ll probably be hoping that a line is drawn under this matter, that it will be over with and that it will all be chalked up to his usual Johnsonesque “clown behaviour”. That’s far from the case though: It has serious implication inside and outside of his political life.

While the leadership contest may be down to the final two, people are (for some reason) clamouring for Johnson to remain as Prime Minister – something that can’t happen unless he manages to stage some form of Coup d’état which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility if you have friends that were in the KGB and the Russians were proven to be a heavy influence in UK politics.

What is worrying is that there may still be life in the political dog yet. It’s patently obvious there is no love lost between Rishi Sunak and Johnson after Sunak’s surprise resignation but Liz Truss has always been a staunch supporter of Johnson and hasn’t ruled out a place for him in her cabinet publicly.

So depending on who wins the Conservative leadership race we could still see Johnson in a position of power and with a track record of possible national security risks, meeting with ex-KGB members seemingly off the books and forcing through a peerage against MI5 advice? That’s worrying.

Outside of politics Johnson, a former “journalist” (I put that in quotes as he was fired for making things up[18]The Independent: Why are we so surprised that Boris Johnson lied when he’s been sacked for lying twice before? could probably move back into the profession with op-ed pieces.

It would be rather obvious if he were to get a job at a Lebedev paper but with the media space being as cosy as it is I am sure a few strings would be pulled here and there.

So, will the Lebedev meeting go away? We’ll have to wait and see. Johnson has promised he will write to the select committee with further details of what happened during his trip on 28th April 2018 but, as we’ve seen, his government has a way of covering things up and not releasing information when it comes to the Lebedevs, their dealings and his interactions with them

I think it’s a case of “watch this space”, the media aren’t going to let this drop any time soon and I don’t think Labour are either if there’s a whiff Johnson might be anywhere near a position of importance under the new leader.

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