PM says no official business discussed at Lebedev palazzo ‘as far as I’m aware’

Show caption Evgeny Lebedev and Boris Johnson at an awards ceremony in London in 2009. Photograph: Ian West/PA Boris Johnson PM says no official business discussed at Lebedev palazzo ‘as far as I’m aware’ Boris Johnson tells MPs 2018 trip was in line with security protocols and officials knew of it in advance Ben Quinn @BenQuinn75 Tue 26 Jul 2022 16.16 BST Share on Facebook

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Boris Johnson has told MPs that no government business was discussed “as far as I am aware” when he met the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev at an Italian palazzo without officials present when he was foreign secretary.

The prime minister admitted this month that he met the businessman in April 2018 after making a trip to a restored castle in Perugia owned by Evgeny Lebedev, Alexander’s son, for a weekend-long party after attending a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels that discussed the security situation with Russia.

Writing back to provide further detail in response to questions posed to him by MPs on the Commons liaison committee on 6 July, he stated that officials were aware in advance he was attending what he described as a social event, and that he did not take ministerial papers with him.

Boris Johnson pressed on meeting ex-KGB agent while foreign secretary – video

The visit was in line with established security protocols, he said, adding that it would not have been normal practice for civil servants or security officials to accompany him to “such a private, social occasion”.

In a letter released by the committee on Tuesday, Johnson wrote: “If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion – any significant context should be passed back to the department after the event. That was not necessary in this case. As far as I am aware, no government business was discussed.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Johnson’s “mealy-mouthed statement” raised more questions than it answered and that his “carelessness with words” had put people in danger while he was foreign secretary.

“Keeping the British people safe should be a priority of government, but this web of murky relationships shows the Conservatives cannot be trusted with our national security,” she said. “The prime minister claims the meeting wasn’t pre-arranged and yet also says officials had been made aware in advance, but he apparently still can’t recall whether he discussed government business or not.”

Johnson said in his letter that there had been “considerable engagement” in the past between senior Labour MPs and Evgeny Lebedev, which included attendance at his social events.

Johnson admitted to the meeting for the first time while responding to questions from Labour’s Meg Hillier at the committee earlier this month. When pressed over whether he had reported it to Foreign Office officials, he said: “I think I did mention it, yes.”

A record of the trip was initially disclosed by him in the register of members’ interests, which recorded that he had an “overnight stay” with Evgeny Lebedev on Saturday 28 April 2018, travelling “accompanied by a spouse, family member or friend”.

A picture emerged of Johnson at a nearby airport in Italy. Other passengers said the then foreign secretary looked like he had “slept in his clothes”, struggled to walk in a straight line and said he had had a heavy night.

Separately in the same correspondence, Johnson revealed that an investigation into the Commons leader, Mark Spencer, over allegations of Islamophobia was in limbo as it had not been completed before his former ethics adviser Christopher Geidt quit the role.

Lord Geidt was examining claims by the MP and former minister Nus Ghani, who alleged in January that when she lost her job as a transport minister she was told that her “Muslimness” had been raised as a problem at a meeting in Downing Street. Spencer voluntarily identified himself as the person Ghani had made the claims about, and said they were “completely false” and defamatory.

“The investigation therefore remains outstanding and should be a matter for a new independent adviser function, as soon as appointed by my successor,” Johnson wrote to the committee, which considers the overall work of select committees and promotes effective scrutiny of the government.