Evgeny Lebedev may not be a secret agent: but would Boris Johnson notice if he was? | Gaby Hinsliff


On the night Boris Johnson finally set his sights on Brexiters, only those close to him were understandably aware of his thoughts.

His then-wife Marina Wheeler was there, as well as main starter Michael Gove and his then-wife Sarah Vine. The odd one out on a slow-roasted lamb supper at Johnson and Wheeler in Islington, meanwhile, was Evgeny Lebedev. The millionaire son of a former Russian KGB officer apparently hung out with the wives making a ‘polite conversation in stage whispers’ as Johnson and Gove spoke over the loudspeaker to a fellow minister who tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to stay. Vine did not explain, in his following column describing the evening, why Lebedev was playing gooseberry on such an important and sensitive night for the future of the nation. If the presence of the owner of the Evening Standard and Independent surprised her, she did not say so.

For a man renowned for his shyness, Lebedev certainly moves. He’s there with Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, pictured for the annual Evening Standard theater awards (during which, Guardian awards cover veteran Hadley Freeman pointed out, the winners invariably thanked “darling Evgeny” and mentioned his “beautiful house in Tuscany”). Here he hands over the editorship of the Standard to George Osborne, an ousted Chancellor who needed a job but was not notoriously a journalist. Here he is pictured with Prince William, with Peter Mandelson, with Tony Blair, with Elton John. And here he organizes every summer what Johnson’s biographer Tom Bower called bacchanalian weekends at his castle in Italy, where Johnson could apparently behave “like a naughty schoolboy.” There are no photographs of these, of course; just reports of a sloppy Johnson the morning after one looked (according to another passenger at the airport) like he had slept in his clothes. Johnson was Foreign Secretary at the time.

But those were the days when Russian money was flowing through London’s veins – supporting the arts, bailing out football clubs, filling hedge funds and keeping Chelsea builders busy digging mega-basements – and asking where he came from was horribly judged. simple. At the time, Putin and the endless photographs of him shirtless were almost treated as a joke. So London became the site of a sort of giant cultural exchange, where billionaires could exchange money for class, for access, to feel at the very heart of things. Journalist Camilla Long, who was working for Tatler magazine when he co-hosted a typically lavish, star-studded evening with Lebedev’s father, Alexander, at the Earl of Spencer’s Althorp estate, remembers her son as “the ‘oligarch it’s OK to be friends with’. Socializing with them might have seemed a bit risky, but exciting. Moreover, most other sources of cash – fossil fuel companies keen to green their reputations by sponsoring art galleries, or Saudi princes keen to buy football clubs – were morally compromised. If cool Britannia was to keep up appearances, the money had to come from somewhere, right?

What recent weeks have revealed, however, is how much the British establishment looks like an aristocratic family on its uppers: all fur coats and no breeches, still clinging to the stately home but with no money to fix the leaky roof, and in no way position to be demanding. It apparently starts at the top, judging by the ongoing internal investigation into allegations that top donors to Prince Charles’ charity were granted meetings with the future king in exchange for their generosity. But any institution whose cachet dwarfs its bank balance is potentially in the same boat, a category encompassing both major political parties and the media. Newspapers still confer influence, prestige and access to the heart of power, but are finding it increasingly difficult to turn a profit, leaving titles such as the Standard and the Independent unable to refuse a generous offer. “What I find extraordinary,” Sasha Swire wrote in her 2020 memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife, after meeting Lebedev at Checkers during David Cameron’s tenure, “is how he managed to break into the the very heart of the English political establishment. by buying a newspaper. It was through the Standard that he first became close to Johnson, then mayor of London. The two men had been friends for a decade at the time. where British intelligence reportedly warned against granting Lebedev a peerage for security reasons; years of texting, lunches and parties in the Umbrian hills.

Johnson reportedly ignored warnings about his confidant, just as he usually dismisses anything that seems like a killjoy or interferes with his freedom to do whatever he wants. When he walked into Downing Street he reportedly insisted that Lebedev be granted that peerage – and after further evidence emerged the security services reportedly ‘reframed’ their advice, clearing them through. Duly elevated in November 2020, Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia has not contributed to a debate or voted since. Presumably, he could always pick up the phone, if he wanted to express a point of view.

Some will wonder why any of this matters, given that Lebedev this week publicly denied being an “agent of Russia” and declared his opposition to invading Ukraine. It is hardly a crime to be an art lover, pro-Brexit, or to want – as many wealthy men do – to seek admission to an establishment happy to welcome it. As his old friend Gove told Sky News, we should of course be wary of crude anti-Russian prejudice at a time when many ordinary Russian émigrés in Britain are appalled by Putin’s actions and fear their children are bullied at school because of it. .

It’s just that this prime minister of all prime ministers might be the last one you would trust to take a reasonably cautious approach to a millionaire — any millionaire — offering private jet transportation. According to his former assistant Dominic Cummings, he is about a man who asked private donors for money to renovate his flat, despite warnings that it might be illegal, and was allegedly so jaded about the national security that he left highly classified papers lying around his apartment. . It’s highly unlikely that a passing visitor has ever taken a peek, of course, but that’s not enough. The problem with men who never seem to think the rules apply to them is that too often they turn out to be precisely the men for whom those rules exist.

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