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Revealed: Boris, the Russian oligarch and the Page 3 model

Exclusive: Parties at Italian vil­la where ‘noth­ing is off the menu’ raise fresh con­cerns about PM hope­ful being a ‘secu­ri­ty risk’.

Conservative par­ty lead­er­ship con­tender Boris Johnson on stage dur­ing a Tory lead­er­ship hus­tings at the Perth Concert Hall, Perth. | Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

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.

Katie Price, AKA Jordan. | Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images

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.”

Evgeny Lebedev | Editingpagesallthetime — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

Original source of arti­cle:

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