Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has branded Boris Johnson a “disgrace” and a threat to national security after he admitted meeting a former KGB agent without Foreign Office officials being present when he was foreign secretary.
Johnson made the admission before members of parliament’s Liaison Committee on Wednesday following a gruelling Prime Ministers’ Questions session and amid a tidal wave of ministerial resignations that eventually led to his own pledge to step down as PM yesterday.
The prime minister had long been known to have attended a 2018 party at a palace in Italy that is owned by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. Johnson is said to have headed straight to the event from a Nato meeting where the top item on the agenda was Russia.
Lebedev is a former owner of the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. His son Evgeny Lebedev was controversially given a peerage in 2020 on Downing Street’s recommendation.
At the Liaison Committee session, an embattled Johnson was subjected to a short burst of questions about meetings with the elder Lebedev and after initially claiming uncertainty over dates said he believed he had met the former KGB agent alone in Italy when he was foreign secretary.
Asked whether he had met Lebedev without officials, Johnson replied: “Yes. That makes sense.” Asked whether he had subsequently reported the meeting to officials, he replied: “I think I did mention it, yes.”
Cooper yesterday demanded an urgent statement to parliament on Johnson’s admissions, which have been the subject of largely unanswered questions for the past four years now.
“The charges against the prime minister are not just about lack of integrity, they are about complete disregard for basic national security and the patriotic interests of this country,” she said.
“Those charges lie not just with the prime minister but with all those who have enabled him and covered up for him on this issue.”
Cooper added: “Its bad enough covering up for parties and breaking the law, but covering up over national security is a total disgrace. It puts all our security and safety at risk. It’s not just the prime minister. It’s the whole government that is letting the country down.”
The shadow home secretary said the admission begged a significant number of questions, including whether the Home Office, the then-FCO and the security services knew about the meeting in advance – and whether a detailed record of it was made after the event.
“There are rumours that the foreign secretary was too drunk to properly remember,” Cooper said. “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, Sergey Lavrov. Is that true? Did that phone call happen?”
Cooper said colleagues had been asking for further details about the Lebedev meeting for months without response.
"Why have Home Office ministers, Cabinet Office ministers and Foreign Office ministers all been covering up?” she asked.
Vicky Ford, a junior minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, told MPs she had no details of any discussions that may have been held with Alexander Lebedev.
“All government ministers are made fully aware of their responsibilities to safeguard national security and sensitive information,” she said.
“It has been the longstanding policy of all governments of all colours not to comment on intelligence or national-security-sensitive matters as to do so might compromise the very security which it is the first duty of government to protect.”