Boris Johnson has admitted for the first time that he met ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev at an Italian palazzo without officials present in April 2018, when he was foreign secretary.
The prime minister told MPs that he had “certainly met” Mr Lebedev, also the former owner of the Independent, acknowledged that the meeting took place privately, and, after a pause, said the encounter took place “in Italy as it happens”.
In fact, Mr Johnson had made a trip to a restored castle in Perugia owned by Evgeny Lebedev, Alexander’s son, in April 2018 for a weekend-long party, immediately after attending a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels that discussed the security situation with Russia.
Mr Johnson was responding to questions from Labour’s Meg Hillier at the Commons liaison committee on Wednesday. When pressed over whether he had reported the party meeting to Foreign Office officials, he added: “I think I did mention it, yes.”
A record of the trip was initially disclosed by Mr Johnson in the register of members’ interests, which recorded that he had an “overnight stay” with Evgeny Lebedev on Saturday, April 28th, travelling “accompanied by a spouse, family member or friend”.
At first Mr Johnson refused repeatedly to explain the nature of the trip, in response to questions from the Guardian, and whether he took his official security team with him. No mention was made of any meeting with Alexander in the disclosure.
Shortly after, a picture emerged of Mr Johnson at a nearby airport in Italy. Other passengers at the airport said that the then foreign secretary looked like “he had slept in his clothes”, struggling to walk in a straight line and telling other passengers he had had a heavy night.
Several months later, the Observer revealed that Mr Johnson had met with Alexander Lebedev during the trip – a meeting confirmed not by the politician but by a spokesperson for the media owner.
“He goes there [Italy] often to stay with his son. He is in Europe a lot and has met pretty much all Evgeny’s friends here over the years. So there is nothing particularly unusual about the meeting,” Mr Lebedev’s spokesperson said at the time.
During the late cold war period, Alexander Lebedev was posted as a spy in London in 1988. After the fall of the Soviet Union he went into business, including media, and he has never sought to hide his KGB past. In a memoir, Hunt the Banker, Mr Lebedev briefly recounts his career in espionage, which ended in 1992 at the rank of colonel.
Last month Alexander Lebedev was placed under economic sanctions by Canada for “directly enabling” Russia’s war in Ukraine, prompting him to resign as director of a company related to the Independent. He has not been sanctioned by any other major country, including the UK.
Mr Johnson’s relationship with Evgeny has also come under scrutiny. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee is inquiring into Evgeny’s appointment to a peerage by Johnson despite initial concerns raised by MI5 about his father’s previous employment with the KGB.— The Guardian