Boris Johnson and Evgeny Lebedev: a decade of politics, parties and peerages

Luke Harding and Dan Sabbagh
·11-min read
<span>Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

The theme of the party attended by Boris Johnson was unmistakable. On the first floor was a mural of Joseph Stalin, dressed in green military uniform. A hammer and sickle decorated the windows. In the centre of the room was an ice sculpture in the shape of a pistol, from where a barman dispensed vodka shots.

A gun – presumably fake – lay on a red double bed in the basement, next to an outdoor smoking area. “Do you like my gun?” the party’s host, Evgeny Lebedev, reportedly asked one visitor. There was also a stuffed bear.

It was Friday 15 December 2017. Lebedev’s parties held in London and at his palazzo in Umbria, Italy, are a highlight of the social calendar. At this particular USSR–themed bash there was champagne, as much as you could drink, a caviar station, a dancefloor and a DJ, and a guest list including A-list actors, rock stars and members of the cabinet.

The most senior was Johnson, then foreign secretary. The prime minister is a regular attendee of parties hosted by Lebedev, which have a reputation for decadence. Prior to the December event, an email had told staff hired for their model looks to prepare for excess. “This party will be on the wilder side so PLEASE BEHAVE YOURSELF,” it said.

The question of how wild it was depends on who is asked. One attendee called it a “vodka assault course” – others say it was more restrained.

Elton John leaving Evgeny Lebedev&#x002019;s party in December 2017
Elton John leaving Evgeny Lebedev’s party in December 2017. Photograph: GORC/GC Images

Johnson is understood to have stayed later than most. His late-night presence attests to one of the more unlikely friendships in modern British politics, which culminated over the summer in Johnson’s contentious decision to make Lebedev a member of the House of Lords.

Lebedev will take up his peerage later this month, or early next, with his new title to be revealed on 29 October. It will mark another significant moment in a relationship that has weathered all manner of scrutiny, and some criticism, since it began more than a decade ago.

Back in 2009, Johnson was the newly elected mayor of London and Lebedev the son of a billionaire who had just bought the Evening Standard. The Standard was a stalwart supporter of Johnson, endorsing his 2012 reelection campaign. But the relationship between them was unusual for a politician and a newspaper proprietor.

In 2015, for instance, Johnson and Lebedev camped out together on the streets of London to draw attention to homelessness among army veterans. They made an improbable double act. When Johnson joked that he had fallen in a puddle, Lebedev quipped: “I saved your life”; the two shared a bottle of whisky.

Beyond the bonhomie, the friendship has touched on Britain’s political destiny. In February 2016, Lebedev went to a private dinner at Johnson’s Islington home. Johnson was wrestling with whether to back Brexit. Other guests included Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine. Oliver Letwin, patched in via iPhone, tried to persuade Johnson to come out for remain. History records what happened next.

Lebedev witnessed these secret Tory manoeuvres.

Last year, the Standard, then edited by the former chancellor George Osborne, endorsed Johnson to become Conservative leader and to succeed Theresa May as prime minister. “Their relationship is social. Evgeny thinks Johnson is a good sport. And Evgeny is addicted to being around people who make him feel important,” one person familiar with Lebedev said.

Evgeny Lebedev, Sir Ian McKellen and George Osborne
Evgeny Lebedev, Sir Ian McKellen (centre) and George Osborne at the Evening Standard theatre awards in London last year. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Johnson has described Lebedev “as a major force for good” – and even found time to go to his home on 19 March, the same day the prime minister had implored Britons to stay indoors to help curb the spread of a virus that would within days force a national lockdown.

Nevertheless, his decision to put Lebedev forward for a peerage came as a shock to many in Westminster, provoking cries of cronyism at a time when all parties had committed to reducing the bloated House of Lords. “It’s payback for political support. In my view it’s unprofessional rather than fishy,” said one source.

Behind the scenes in Whitehall, the Guardian can reveal, there had been consternation of a different sort. Two days before Johnson met Lebedev in March, the House of Lords appointments commission (Holac), which scrutinises all nominations, wrote to the prime minister. It is understood to have expressed concerns about Lebedev’s proposed peerage and asked Downing Street to reconsider.

Related: Evgeny Lebedev, Jo Johnson and Ian Botham among 36 peerage nominations

The commission, made up of cross-party peers, carries out “propriety checks” on candidates. It does not have the power of veto. But it can suggest that a party come up with an alternative, which is what is understood to have happened in Lebedev’s case.

Peers were apparently alarmed following a confidential briefing from the UK security services. They told the commission Lebedev was viewed as a potential security risk because of his father, Alexander Lebedev, a one-time Moscow spy. During the late cold war period, Lebedev Sr worked undercover at the Soviet embassy in London. His real employer was KGB foreign intelligence. Subsequently he went into banking and the media.

Alexander Lebedev has never sought to hide his KGB past. In a recent memoir, Hunt the Banker, he charts in a few pages his path through his recruitment by the KGB, his posting as a spy in London in 1988 and his exit from the world of espionage in 1992 with the rank of colonel.

Alexander Lebedev
Alexander Lebedev holds up the English and Russian editions of his book in Moscow last November. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

In July, Lebedev’s name is understood to have been resubmitted by Downing Street and sources said there was a “to and fro” between No 10 and Holac, reflecting “concern about his antecedents”. Downing Street sought further assurances from the security agencies; they told those who needed to know their fundamental assessment about the possible security risk was unchanged, but they also provided extra context, which was enough to lead to a different outcome.

The peers reluctantly signed off on his appointment, the Guardian understands. In their confirmation letter, they are said to have called on Johnson to examine Russian influence in the House of Lords, something highlighted by parliament’s intelligence and security committee in its Russia report.

Security sources say Lebedev’s “family links” mean that he is still regarded as a potential concern, even as he enters the Lords. In effect, they estimate the risk to be low, partly because peers do not see classified documents. Lebedev says he is being unfairly maligned due to his Russian background.

Downing Street initially said it would not comment on individual cases, adding that “it is not uncommon” to seek “further information and assurances” over House of Lords appointments.

But when pressed, a No 10 spokesman said: “Evgeny Lebedev is a British citizen who has made an outstanding contribution to the UK. All peerages are vetted by the House of Lords appointments commission for matters of probity. The commission seeks advice from government departments and agencies where appropriate.”

Downing Street insiders highlighted Lebedev’s ownership of the Evening Standard and the Independent, as well as his charitable activities – a point made by the peer himself.“Raising £75m for UK charities and spending £120m saving two great UK media titles might have had something to do with it,” Lebedev told the Guardian.

This wasn’t just a fun Christmas party’

Johnson was not the only influential politician to drop into Lebedev’s opulent townhouse at 20 Park Square East for the 2017 Christmas party. The first guest of note was an ex-prime minister, Tony Blair. Blair came between 6.30pm and 7pm, before the event began, his office said. He spent 20 minutes talking to Lebedev in the Stalin room.

Other politicians came by at about 8.30pm. They included Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, the former Labour MPs Peter Mandelson and Tristram Hunt and prominent Conservatives such as the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. And, of course, Johnson, foreign secretary in May’s faltering government.

Missing was David Cameron, who had been to other Lebedev events including a 2015 birthday party.

The politicians mainly arrived and left early. In contrast, the actors turned up fashionably late, at about 10pm to 11pm. They included Sir Ian McKellen, who co-owns a pub with Evgeny Lebedev in east London, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Stewart and Idris Elba. Elton John appeared in a red suit.

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Also there was the 86-year-old Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corps and proprietor of the Brexit-supporting Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times. Murdoch, who left long before midnight, sat on a sofa, according to one observer, and select people were brought to him.

Upstairs, the atmosphere in the purple lit L-shaped party room was hedonistic, those present said. And as the night went on it got increasingly uninhibited. This was in contrast to the more conventional room downstairs, where most of the politicians had gathered, they said.

Later in the evening, according to some people who were present, a small number of Lebedev’s guests also consumed class A drugs in at least one part of the house. Johnson was not among them. Many attendees, including Lebedev, said they did not see it and were not aware of it.

But while it would hardly be unusual for drugs to be taken at an upmarket bash in central London, the fact Johnson was still at the party late on certainly was. While other senior politicians had circulated and left, the foreign secretary and future prime minister had stayed on, apparently slipping in and out through a back entrance.

Related: Johnson peerage for Lebedev crowns mutually beneficial friendship

“It doesn’t feel like it’s good for democracy to have these parties going on,” one witness said. “This wasn’t just a fun Christmas party. It was more than that. It was a forum for doing a lot of [political] deals and creating things that the public doesn’t know about … It seems a more important issue now Johnson is our prime minister.”

The witness is not the first person to have made such a point about senior politicians and media proprietors. The 2012 Leveson inquiry found the relationship between politicians and the press over the previous three decades had damaged the perception of public affairs. It concluded that politicians of all parties had developed “too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”.

That advice has not stopped Johnson from continuing to see Lebedev. In April 2018, he flew to Italy for a weekend at the Lebedevs’ Terranova mansion. His trip came soon after two Russian military assassins poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury with the nerve agent novichok. Johnson had been meeting Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, to discuss the Skripal crisis. He took the unusual step on the Italy trip of leaving his security team behind.

The following day, a member of the public spotted Johnson at the airport. His suit was crumpled and he looked hungover. The foreign secretary was on his own, clutching a book. He boarded an easyJet flight back to London. It is unclear what Johnson discussed with Lebedev or his father, who was also in Terranova, or why he dispensed with his bodyguards for the solo trip.

Last year, a day after the general election, Johnson again attended Lebedev’s vodka and caviar Christmas party at Park Square East. The event was also a celebration for Alexander Lebedev’s 60th birthday. And, as it turned out, it was also a chance to toast the Conservatives and their election majority. The prime minister came with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

Boris Johnson (R) and Carrie Symonds seen attending Evgeny Lebedev&#x002019;s Christmas Party on December 13, 2019 in London, England.
Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds attending Evgeny Lebedev’s Christmas party last December. Photograph: GORC/GC Images

The Guardian has repeatedly asked Johnson about his attendances at these parties, and whether he thinks, given the senior government jobs he has held, he is taking unnecessary risks. He has always declined to answer.

Lebedev, however, accused the Guardian of a “continuing harassment of me over the past year or so [which] has been full of untruthful innuendo and light on facts.

“It had also been racist. It is possible to be Russian-born and prominent in this country and not a promoter of the Russian state or government. I am one such person and, moreover, I am not my father, whatever dubious allegations you might wish to direct against me via him.”

Lebedev is to receive his letters patent from the Queen on 29 October. The Garter King of Arms will unveil his new title. A ceremony introducing Lebedev to the Lords can be expected soon after. During it, he will swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch while wearing a borrowed ermine robe.

And then the prime minister’s friend is a peer for life.