Boris Johnson has been charged with an incredible breach of transparency rules after an open democracy probe revealed the PM had a personal meeting with influential Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedevs, days after telling the public British to avoid non-essential contact with others.
On March 19, Johnson met Lebedev Holdings at his private residence. Number 10 declined to say who was present at this meeting besides the prime minister but Lebedev Holdings, which owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, is controlled by Evgeny Lebedev.
Johnson has long been close to Lebedev. As openDemocracy revealed last year, the curatorial chef has been regularly invited to parties where nothing is on the menu at the lavish Russian villa in Umbria. Earlier this year, the prime minister nominated Lebedev for a seat in the House of Lords.
On March 16, three days before the meeting with the Lebedevs company, Johnson urged the public to avoid non-essential contact. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has since claimed that the The UK lockdown began the same day as the prime ministers address
Although Johnson continued to have business meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister’s Office said in response to a Freedom of Information request that Lebedev’s meeting was a matter personal / social, so no details about who was present or what had been discussed needed to be released.
A shadow cabinet minister and transparency activists accused Johnson of circumventing transparency rules by declaring a meeting with a business as a personal meeting just days after telling the public to avoid unnecessary social contact.
Rachel Davies Teka, advocacy manager at Transparency International UK, said the idea that a minister could set up a personal social meeting with a company is absurd.
Either the business was discussed, in which case the meeting should have been recorded and declared, or it was a private social meeting with individuals, not a legal person. The public has the right to know what their elected officials are discussing as ministers and with whom they are discussing it.
Shadow Cabinet Minister Helen Hayes said: “At a time when there is deep concern about undue influence in UK democracy, it seems incredible that this meeting has taken place without proper transparency – d ‘especially since the prime minister later decided to nominate Lebedev for a peerage. “
Warm relationship between Boris and Evgenys
Johnson and Lebedev have remained close since Johnson entered at number 10. The Prime Minister attended a Lebedev family party just a day after his landslide election victory in December. The party was hosted by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny.
At the end of July, Lebedev was controversially named as a peer in the Prime Minister’s list of disbandment honors, shortly after the long-awaited publication of the intelligence and security committees’ report on Russia’s interference in the British political system. The following week, the Evening Standard sacked nearly half its writing.
Lebedev is one of many Russians close to the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. Last year, openDemocracy revealed how well-connected Russian oligarchs and companies heavily involved in lobbying for Russian interests have stepped up their funding for conservatives.
Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister, donated more than 450,000 people to the Tories last year. Former arms magnate and current Conservative donor Alexander Temerko spoke warmly about his friend Sasha Johnson.
Temerko has offered more than $ 1.2 million to the Tories over the past seven years and has reportedly admitted to being involved in a Eurosceptic plot to oust May as head of the Tories.
The social meeting with Lebedev Holdings is not the first time that questions have been asked about Johnsons approach to COVID-19 guidance. In early March, the Prime Minister boasted of shaking everyone’s hands during a visit to a hospital where patients infected with the virus were being treated. Johnson was then hospitalized for COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the the prime minister was accused of hypocrisy when 50 Conservative MPs crowded into a meeting room despite a door sign warning of a limit of 29 people. Bloomberg reported that Johnson commented on how he wanted people to be similarly gathered on Christmas, describing the scenes as a cheek by a jowl.
Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to the Prime Minister, sparked widespread national outrage in May this year when it was revealed he had potentially broken lockdown rules for drive 264 miles to his parents’ house in Durham.
Cummings also traveled to Barnard Castle with his wife and son in another apparent violation of Covid-19 lockdown guidelines, but he then argued it was necessary to verify his eyesight was not impaired by disease.
News of Boris Johnson’s meeting with Lebedev Holdings three days after advising against unnecessary contact has been criticized by the Labor Party.
Helen Hayes, MP, shadow cabinet minister, said: ‘When the government should have focused entirely on swift action against COVID-19 and making sure those working on the frontlines get the PPE they so desperately need need, the Prime Minister seems to have given priority a personal meeting and without minutes with Evgeny Lebedev.
“With the government’s response to this pandemic widely recognized as being too slow, people have a right to ask what was so pressing about this meeting that it might be warranted at such a crucial time, but was not classified as an official government business.
A spokesperson for Number 10 said: The political work of ministers continued throughout the pandemic, with appropriate Covid Secure measures in place for personal meetings. Restrictions for people to stay at home were not introduced until March 23.
Lebedev Holdings has not yet responded to requests for comment.
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