Boris Johnson has been accused of misleading the Commons over a meeting with Alexander Lebedev at the height of the Salisbury poisoning crisis.
The Prime Minister admitted on Wednesday for the first time that he had met the Russian oligarch and former KGB agent at an Italian palazzo in April 2018, with no officials present.
Mr Johnson, foreign secretary at the time, said he thought he had subsequently mentioned the meeting to officials – but on Thursday it emerged that it was not documented in the department’s transparency records for that month.
Alexander Lebedev served at the Soviet Embassy in London in the 1980s and built a fortune in Russia in banking and airline companies. He bought the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers in 2010 before shifting ownership to Lord Lebedev, his son.
Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Vicky Ford, the foreign office minister, told MPs that after meeting Alexander Lebedev, Mr Johnson reported it to officials “as required”.
However, within minutes she corrected herself after being passed a note and claimed the Prime Minister “says that he thinks he mentioned this meeting to officials”.
Labour’s Chris Bryant, the chairman of the Commons standards committee, told MPs that either Ms Ford “has misled us inadvertently” or otherwise Mr Johnson “did so perhaps more deliberately previously” as there was no official record of the meeting.
A meeting took place between Mr Johnson and Lord Lebedev on April 28, 2018, which involved an “overnight stay” accompanied by a “spouse, family member or friend”, according to the Foreign Office transparency data for that month. However, the rendezvous with Alexander Lebedev is not mentioned.
Appearing at a liaison committee meeting on Wednesday, the Prime Minister was quizzed by MPs about whether he met with Alexander Lebedev without officials on April 28, 2018.
He said he “certainly” had met him “without officials,” adding: “I met him on a very few occasions. On the occasion you are mentioning, if that was when I was foreign secretary, then yes.”
When Mr Johnson was asked where he met Alexander Lebedev, an official sitting behind him suddenly looked up and then started making notes, drawing a circle around what he had written for emphasis.
The aide then leant forward and handed the note to the Prime Minister just as he finished saying: “I met him in Italy, as it happens.”
His answer then tailed off and the MPs drew the subject to a close by suggesting Mr Johnson wrote to them to follow up with answers to their questions.
Alexander Lebedev cut ties with the Independent in May after he was sanctioned in Canada. The billionaire was hit by an asset freeze and visa ban over his links to the Kremlin while Vladimir Putin continues to wage war on Ukraine.
Omission from records ‘very serious’
Mr Bryant told The Telegraph the omission of the Alexander Lebedev meeting from the official record was “very serious” and called for an investigation into the full circumstances.
“When you are foreign secretary, you are acting on behalf of the country at all times. The idea that you would swan off and not tell your civil servants is extraordinary,” he said.
Likening it to Neville Chamberlain “trying to have a secret meeting with the Italians” in the run-up to the Second World War, he said: “This should be looked into. They should come clean about it.”
It was also claimed that Alexander Lebedev may have arranged a private call between Mr Johnson and the Kremlin at the meeting.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, accused the Prime Minister of having a “complete disregard” for national security.
She said Mr Johnson went straight to Italy to see the Lebedevs “from a Nato meeting where the top item on the agenda was Russia, at the height of the Salisbury crisis”.
She asked why Alexander Lebedev had been sanctioned by Canada but not the UK and said: “Did the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the security service know about this meeting in advance? Was a detailed record made after the event of the meeting?
“Because there are rumours that the foreign secretary was too drunk to properly remember. Is that true? There are also rumours that Alexander Lebedev was trying to arrange a phone call from the meeting with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, is that true? Did that phone call happen?
“The record of ministers’ interests says the foreign secretary accepted hospitality in Italy for himself and a guest. But he travelled home alone. Who was that guest? And did that put him in a compromising position?”
The Commons intelligence and security committee is conducting an investigation over the appointment of Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords.
Evgeny Lebedev, who has dual Russian and British nationality, has denied posing a security risk to the nation and pointed to his philanthropic work as the reason for his appointment.
The peer published an open letter to Putin in the Evening Standard at the start of the Ukraine war, calling on him to end the conflict.
Lord Lebedev said earlier this year: “I have nothing to hide. I have no links to the Kremlin. Never even been inside apart from the museum.”