In October 2016, Boris Johnson, the recently-appointed foreign secretary, left Whitehall behind to fly to Italy for a private weekend break. He was invited to the luxurious Umbrian villa of his wealthy friend, Evgeny Lebedev – the Russian owner of London’s Evening Standard newspaper. It was not the first time Boris had been to the secluded Palazzo Terranova in the hills near Perugia.
During his stint as London’s mayor, Boris had been to the 17th-century villa four times as Lebedev’s guest, using his friend’s private jet to fly there and back to London. His now estranged wife, Marina Wheeler, sometimes accompanied him.
Boris’s host, the son of a wealthy Russian oligarch and former KGB agent, is regarded as a ringmaster of lavish, “outrageous” gatherings which attract the elite of Britain’s stage, screen, and politics. Some of those who have experienced what one guest called Lebedev’s “full Italian experience” have told openDemocracy that “nothing is off the menu from the moment you are greeted to the moment you leave. A quiet English country house retreat it is not.”
Friends also say that Evgeny enjoys throwing “social hand grenades into his gatherings” to spice up the party atmosphere.
On this occasion, Boris declined the offer of the private jet, and flew to Pisa airport in Italy on Easyjet. He also opted to leave his close-protection officers from the Metropolitan Police behind in the UK.
Among the weekend guests at the villa was the glamour model Katie Price. She took advantage of the free-flowing champagne on the private jet from London and the pure Russian vodka on offer to guests before dinner.
Lebedev, according to associates, likes his guests to dress glamorously for dinner and to make a formal toast at the table. Seated by their host next to Boris, Price rose to make her contribution. She called Lebedev “You Guv”, announced that “champagne and Pricey don’t mix,” and then lifted her top to expose her breasts, turning to face the foreign secretary as she did so.
Although Lebedev’s parties have a reputation for excess, there was concern among some guests – the party also included the actress Joan Collins, pop star Pixie Lott, Johnson’s brother Leo and Marina Wheeler – that Price’s antics would eventually appear in the pages of a red-top newspaper. Britain’s foreign secretary had just put himself in an extremely embarrassing situation, and had put at risk the one asset the Foreign and Commonwealth Office values above all else: control. “This is a hand grenade too far,” Joan Collins reportedly said.
One of Lebedev’s four-strong team of armed personal bodyguards, headed by an ex-SAS soldier, escorted Price from the dinner table. She was not seen again over the weekend.
Lebedev’s parties, their excess, extravagance and his penchant for “grenades,” would have been well known to Johnson. In October 2012, then London mayor, he accepted two nights accommodation at Terranova and two return flights from Farnborough on Lebedev’s private jet. In 2013 he visited again, this time flying from Luton. In 2014 and 2015 he returned to the Umbrian villa again. Johnson has also stayed overnight at Lebedev’s lavish country retreat on the Hampton Court estate, Stud House. During his time as London mayor, Johnson said of Lebedev: “I am proud to call him a friend.”
ITN’s political editor, Robert Peston, described the Lebedev-Johnson friendship in his book, WTF? Peston wrote: “Some would argue it is unsettling that Johnson, as mayor of London and then foreign secretary thought it appropriate to take hospitality from a Russian-born media mogul, whose oligarch father’s relationship with President Putin and the Kremlin is much debated, and is certainly opaque.”
Meanwhile the Sunday Times recently carried a story claiming the former foreign secretary had been branded “a security risk by a senior cabinet minister who was close to Theresa May, but is backing Hunt for the leadership.” In the front page story on Johnson, the Sunday Times quoted the cabinet minister in conversation with another unnamed cabinet minister: “There will be things in his private life that we don’t know about … there’s the danger that people leak what they have over him or blackmail him with it.”
Shortly after Johnson was promoted to foreign secretary by Theresa May in July 2016, Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, also writing in the Sunday Times, said that responsibility for MI6 had been “quietly shifted [from Boris Johnson] to the prime minister and the National Security Council.”.
However after Jeremy Hunt (now Johnson’s leadership rival) became Foreign Secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed to openDemocracy that Hunt had “oversight” of both MI6 and GCHQ (part of the UK’s intelligence network responsible for signals intelligence and information).
So had MI6 oversight, as Boulton claimed, been quietly removed from Boris? The FCO did not challenge the central claim made by Boulton that Downing Street had intervened and altered Boris’s security access. Their response to openDemocracy was simply : “The Foreign Secretary has oversight of SIS [MI6]” and that “no change was made to these arrangements in 2016.”
Friends with the Russians
Evgeny’s father, Alexander Lebedev, was a KGB agent at the Russian embassy in London in the 1980s, later working for its successor agency, the FSB. Like many others, he took advantage of the Yeltsin era’s economic chaos to acquire vast wealth. He grew a small Russian bank into one of Russia’s largest, acquired shares in Aeroflot and a stake in Russia’s aircraft building industries, and held significant shares in Gazprom, one of Russia’s largest companies, which is now majority-owned by the Russian government.
In 2006 his wealth was estimated to be close to $4 billion. But the scale of the Lebedevs’ fortune is reported to have significantly fallen. Along with the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebedev Senior is also a shareholder in Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper often critical of the Putin regime. Although he has a difficult relationship with the Kremlin, he continues to survive and is tolerated by Putin.
Alexander Lebedev has met Boris Johnson numerous times. And now that Johnson is front-runner to become the next prime minister, Boris’s friendship with the Lebedev family may be providing other dividends.
Lebedev’s Evening Standard newspaper, London’s only freesheet distributed daily across the capital in the afternoon, and its editor, George Osborne, have openly backed Boris in the race for Number 10, stating: “Mr Johnson is the candidate who might just get Britain feeling good about itself again… he can put his party, and his country, back on track.”
The Standard was given one of the rare newspaper interviews with Johnson, reporting on his promise to reach out “beyond Tory voters” and to bring “excitement” but also “seriousness” to politics. And it was the Standard who published the first post-row picture of Johnson with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, claiming – without explanation or evidence – that all was now well with the couple.
The front page of the paper, largely filled with an undated image of the couple holding hands in a country garden, stated: “Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds broke cover today in pictures of them holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes just days after police were called to a row at her flat. “ A “source” in the article confirmed the picture was “genuine”.
Friends with the Saudis
The Lebedevs, in turn, have many reasons to nurture a close relationship with the likely next prime minister.
Their Evening Standard newspaper has recently attracted controversy because of its links to Saudi business interests. Following the sale in 2017 of a significant part of Lebedev’s shares in the Evening Standard and Independent website to an entity in the Cayman Islands, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, decided to trigger competition and public interest probes.
Wright said the Cayman companies had “strong links” to Saudi Arabia and said the sale warranted investigation, given the public requirement for accurate news and free expression of opinion. (Media reports had already identified the Saudi link.)
The Competition and Markets Authority and the media regulator, Ofcom, have until August 23 to respond. The UK, however, will have a new prime minister by that date, potentially one who calls Evgeny “a friend.”
The strange case of the dead dog
There is much that remains opaque about the Lebedevs’ other business relationships, and personal loyalties. Whatever their relationship with Putin is, and whatever the current scale of the family’s wealth in London and Moscow, Evgeny Lebedev is, according to some of his close associates, still personally afraid of the actions Putin could deploy to control the business activities of his family.
One example of that fear is the recent death of his dog. Vladimir, a large white Borzoi, a Russian wolfhound, was found dead on the Umbrian estate. The dog was said to be Lebedev’s pride and joy. His Instagram account is full of pictures of the huge dog, which was clearly an important part of his life. The last picture of the dog was posted in November last year.
Lebedev has told associates that he believes the dog was poisoned and that it was a message from Moscow.
The great and the good
As might be expected from the owner of a media company, Boris Johnson is just one in a long list of senior politicians and celebrities entertained by Evgeny Lebedev. David Cameron and Vince Cable, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Bernard Hogan-Howe, and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage have all been welcomed at his lavish London properties. Rupert Murdoch and other media elites are repeat guests.
Other actors and celebrities who are regular guests at his home in central London, at Stud House on the Hampton Court estate, and in Italy include Elton John, Shirley Bassey, Elizabeth Hurley, Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Michael Gambon and Shirley Bassey. Peter Mandelson, who held numerous cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government, accompanied by his partner Reinaldo da Silva, have also been visitors.
Sarah Sands, the former Evening Standard editor and now editor of the BBC Today Programme, and George Osborne, the former chancellor and now editor of Lebedev’s Evening Standard, have both made multiple visits to Umbria. Amol Rajan, the former editor of The Independent, now media editor of the BBC, frequently travelled to Umbria when he worked as Lebedev’s personal assistant and fixer, and later during his brief stint running the Independent newspaper. The online Independent remains part of Lebedev’s ESI Media company.
Dignity in public office
Boris Johnson’s opponent in the Tory leadership race, current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, has so far refused to go negative on Boris – in particular on his personal life. The Foreign Secretary, although understood to have potential ammunition on his competitor, has so far restricted criticism to calling Johnson “a coward” for refusing to take part in televised debates. Their only scheduled TV debate is in early July, crucially after the arrival of ballot papers to Conservative members.
Others are less circumspect. Max Hastings, Johnson’s boss when he was a journalist at the Daily Telegraph, described him as “utterly unfit to be prime minister” and a “tasteless joke” being foisted on the British people by the Conservative Party, adding: “Dignity still matters in public office and Johnson will never have it.”
openDemocracy contacted Boris Johnson’s campaign asking for any comment he would care to make. No reply was received.
Contact was also made with Katie Price’s management team and with Joan Collins’ managing agents. No reply was received.
Mr Lebedev’s office at the Evening Standard was also contacted. An initial statement simply said “This is wrong.” Asked to clarify what was wrong - namely, the foreign secretary’s visit to Terranova, Katie Price’s invitation and attendance, and the description of the dinner party - no further response was received.