Yvette Cooper has put an urgent question in the House of Commons to ask whether Alexander Lebedev tried to arrange a private phone call between Boris Johnson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a weekend party in April 2018.
A day after Johnson first admitted he had met ex-KGB agent Lebedev without officers present, the shadow Home Secretary told the House of Commons that by traveling to the party at an Italian palazzo owned by Lebedev’s son, further questions were raised.
“There are also rumors that Alexander Lebedev tried to arrange a phone call from the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is that true? Did that call take place?” Cooper asked from the shipping box.
In response, Vicky Ford, a junior secretary at the State Department, said, “I take national security issues seriously,” but did not address the question substantively. She said ministers had introduced “world-leading sanctions packages” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last month, the Tortoise website reported that Lebedev had attempted to set up an unsupervised link between Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, and Lavrov to discuss the poisoning in Salisbury, which had taken place nearly two months earlier. But the call never happened because Johnson overslept.
Later Thursday, Lebedev denied trying to set up a phone call between the two politicians. “Both were absolutely able to call each other at the time and they certainly did. Why would you need an operator?”
But he confirmed he met Johnson at the party and said they shook hands. “Maybe we exchanged a few words at the table with the other guests, but who cares about the truth in these times, especially when it comes to someone who is Russian,” Lebedev added.
On Saturday night, Johnson was said to have been heavily intoxicated at the event, meaning there was unlikely to be much substantive discussion between the newspaper owner and the then Foreign Secretary.
On Wednesday, Johnson confirmed to MPs that he had traveled without his security detail to a weekend party in Perugia, where he admitted he “certainly met” Lebedev, a former Soviet KGB colonel. Johnson said he reported the encounter to officers upon his return.
Cooper asked Ford a series of questions about meeting Lebedev, also a former owner of the Independent and Evening Standard. “Did the Foreign Office, the Interior Ministry and the Security Service know about this meeting in advance? Was a detailed record made after the event of the meeting? Because there are rumors that the Secretary of State was too drunk to remember properly. Is that true?” she asked.
The Labor MP said the opposition had been asking questions about the meeting for months, accusing ministers of withholding information. “It’s bad enough covering up parties and breaking the law, but covering up national security is a total disgrace,” Cooper told lawmakers.
In an initial statement, Ford said that while Johnson confirmed the fact of Wednesday’s meeting, she had “no information as to the content of any discussions that may or may not have been held with Mr. Lebedev.”
The minister was then pressed by Labor backbencher Chris Bryant as to why no recording of the meeting with Lebedev appeared in the Foreign Office’s transparency documents, but only a reference to an “overnight stay” with his son Evgeny Lebedev on 28/29. Apr 2018 .
Bryant said this indicated that Johnson had in fact made no statement about the meeting with Alexander Lebedev, despite what he told MPs on Wednesday because it would have appeared in the records.
In response, Ford was forced to change her answer. First she said: “As far as I know, the prime minister confirmed that he met Mr Lebedev without any officials present and that he subsequently reported those meetings to the officials.”
But moments later, the prime minister was less sure. “I’ve just received a note that the Prime Minister appears to be saying he thinks he has mentioned this meeting to officials,” prompting jeers from Labor benches. “I’m reporting what I’ve been told,” she said.