Boris Johnson has been accused of an “incredible” breach of transparency rules after an openDemocracy investigation found that the prime minister had a “personal” meeting with influential Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev’s company days after telling the British public to avoid all “non-essential contact with others”.
On March 19, Johnson met with Lebedev Holdings at his private residence. Number 10 has refused to say who was present at this meeting besides the prime minister but Lebedev Holdings, which owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, is controlled by Evgeny Lebedev.
Johnson has long been close to Lebedev. As openDemocracy revealed last year, the Tory leader has been a regular guest at parties “where nothing is off the menu” in the Russian’s lavish villa in Umbria. Earlier this year, the prime minister nominated Lebedev for a seat in the House of Lords.
On March 16, three days before the meeting with Lebedev’s company, Johnson urged the public to avoid all “non-essential contact”. Health secretary Matt Hancock has since claimed that the UK’s lockdown began on the same day as the prime minister’s address.
Although Johnson continued to have business meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the prime minister's office said in response to a Freedom of Information request that the Lebedev meeting was a “personal/social” matter – so no details of who attended or what was discussed needed to be released.
A shadow cabinet minister and transparency campaigners have accused Johnson of dodging transparency rules by declaring a meeting with a company as a “personal” meeting just days after telling the public to avoid unnecessary social contact.
Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency International UK said that “the idea that a minister can host a personal social meeting with a company is nonsense.”
“Either business was discussed, in which case the meeting should have been minuted and declared, or this was a private social meeting with individuals, not a corporate entity. The public has a right to know what their elected representatives are discussing in their capacity as ministers – and who they are discussing it with.”
Shadow cabinet office minister Helen Hayes said: "At a time where there is deep concern about undue influence in British democracy, it seems incredible this meeting took place without proper transparency - especially given the prime minister later decided to nominate Lebedev for a peerage."
Boris and Evgeny’s cosy relationship
Johnson and Lebedev have stayed close since Johnson entered Number 10. The prime minister attended a Lebedev family party just one day after his landslide election victory in December. The party was hosted by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny.
In late July, Lebedev was controversially nominated as a peer in the prime minister’s dissolution honours list, shortly after the long-awaited publication of the intelligence and security committee’s report into Russian interference in the British political system. The following week the Evening Standard sacked nearly half its editorial staff.
Lebedev is one of a number of Russians close to the upper echelons of the Conservative party. Last year openDemocracy revealed how well-connected Russian oligarchs and companies heavily involved in lobbying for Russian interests have stepped up their funding of the Tories.
Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister, has donated more than £450,000 to the Conservatives in the last year. Former arms tycoon and current Tory donor Alexander Temerko has spoken warmly about his friend “Sasha” Johnson.
Temerko gifted over £1.2 million to the Conservatives over the past seven years and has reportedly admitted being involved in a Eurosceptic plot to oust May as Tory leader.
The ‘social’ meeting with Lebedev Holdings is not the first time that questions have been asked about Johnson’s approach to COVID-19 guidance. In early March the prime minister boasted “I shook hands with everybody” during a visit to a hospital where patients with the virus were being treated. Johnson was later hospitalised with COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the prime minister was accused of hypocrisy when 50 Tory members of parliament crowded into a meeting room despite a sign on the door warning of a 29-person limit. Bloomberg reported that Johnson commented on how he wanted people to be packed together in the same way by Christmas describing the scenes as “cheek by jowl”.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief advisor, caused widespread national outrage in May this year when it was revealed he had potentially broken the lockdown rules to drive 264 miles to his parents’ home in Durham.
Cummings also drove to Barnard Castle with his wife and son in another apparent breach of the Covid-19 lockdown guidelines – however he later argued it was necessary in order to check his eyesight wasn’t impaired by the illness.
News of Boris Johnson’s meeting with Lebedev Holdings three days after advising against all unnecessary contact has been criticised by the Labour Party.
Helen Hayes MP, shadow cabinet office minister said: "When the government should have been entirely focused on taking swift action on COVID-19 and ensuring those working on the front line were getting the PPE they desperately needed, the prime minister appears to have prioritised a personal, un-minuted meeting with Evgeny Lebedev .
"With the government's response to this pandemic widely acknowledged as too slow, people have a right to ask what was so pressing about this meeting that it could be justified at such a crucial time, yet was not classified as official government business.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: “The political work of ministers continued throughout the pandemic, with appropriate Covid Secure measures in place for personal meetings. Restrictions requiring people to stay at home were not introduced until March 23.”
Lebedev Holdings has yet to respond to requests for comment.