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Labour accuses Boris Johnson of hiding meetings with Russian oligarchs

Prime minister has failed to publish lists of visitors to his country residence, sparking transparency fears

Peter Geoghegan
Jim Cusick Peter Geoghegan
18 March 2022, 4.53pm
Questions have been raised over visitors to the prime minister's country residence, Chequers
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Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour has accused Boris Johnson of deliberately hiding details of meetings at his country residence, Chequers.

A source with links to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) told openDemocracy that there were “internal concerns” about Chequers being used as an “undocumented” channel for Conservative Party business.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said it was “deeply concerning” that vital transparency data was being covered up to avoid scrutiny of who the prime minister was entertaining.

Rayner said: “What has the prime minister got to hide? With questions raised about Boris Johnson’s secret meetings with Russian oligarchs, it is crucial that the Cabinet Office releases this data to the public.”

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The Ministerial Code states that Chequers should not be used for party political work. When the prime minister hosts Conservative Party or personal events at Chequers it should be at his expense with, as the code states, “no cost falling to the public purse”.

Details of guests who visited Chequers and Chevening, the foreign secretary’s grace and favour estate, were previously routinely published, but the practice appears to have ended shortly after David Cameron won a Conservative majority in 2015.

In a recent response to a parliamentary question about the publication of Chequers visitors, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis pointed to official transparency data that has not been updated since December that year.

The prime minister has been criticised for his relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian-born media mogul. Johnson reportedly overrode security concerns to give Lebedev a seat in the House of Lords.

Shortly before Boris Johnson won the Conservative leadership contest and became prime minister in 2019, openDemocracy published the first full details of his visits to Lebedev’s villa in Umbria, Italy. This week Labour wrote to the Home Office asking if any record of this meeting was kept.

openDemocracy has previously revealed that, in March 2020, Lebedev and Johnson had a “personal” meeting just days before the COVID-19 lockdown.

Boris plays by his own rules. If we did not know at the beginning, we know it now

One Conservative MP, serially critical of Johnson’s record as prime minister, told openDemocracy: “Boris plays by his own rules. If we did not know at the beginning, we know it now. He is reluctant to use his own money in anything connected to his role as PM.”

Johnson has form when it comes to delaying the release of potentially damaging information.

In March 2019, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) examined Russian interference in British politics. The 50-page ‘Russia Report’ was sent to Johnson in Number 10 in October. It was eventually published, heavily redacted, in July 2020.

The Russia Report found that “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin” were “well integrated into the UK business and social scene”. Johnson refused to act on its conclusion that the government must “take the necessary measures to… challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites”.

Although it is illegal for any Russian national to donate to a UK political party, those with dual UK-Russian status, or UK nationals with significant links to Putin’s Kremlin, have donated to the Conservative Party in recent years. Labour claims that Russian-linked donors have given close to £2m to the Conservatives since Johnson became leader.

Prime ministers have often entertained guests at Chequers. The last transparency release from David Cameron’s time in office showed that, between October and December 2015, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, President Xi Jinping of China, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, all visited Chequers.

But no full lists of those Cameron entertained at Chequers were published. During Cameron’s time in government, this lack of transparency was criticised by the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham. He said the public “had a right to be suspicious” and that partial lists risked damaging public trust in the government.

The Cabinet Office was approached for comment but had yet to respond at the time of publication.

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