Yvette Cooper has used an urgent question in the Commons to ask if Alexander Lebedev sought to arrange a private phone call between Boris Johnson and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during a weekend party in April 2018.
A day after Johnson admitted for the first time that he had met Lebedev, a former KGB agent, the shadow home secretary told the Commons there were further questions raised by the trip to the party at an Italian palazzo owned by Lebedev’s son.
“There are also rumours that Alexander Lebedev was trying to arrange a phone call from the meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is that true? Did that phone call happen?” Cooper asked from the dispatch box.
In reply, Vicky Ford, a junior Foreign Office minister, said: “I take national security issues seriously,” but she failed to address the question substantively. She said ministers had introduced “world-leading sanctions packages” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last month the Tortoise website reported that Lebedev had sought to set up an unmonitored line between Johnson, the then foreign secretary, and Lavrov to discuss the Salisbury poisonings that had happened nearly two months earlier. But the call never took place because Johnson overslept.
On Wednesday Johnson confirmed to MPs that he had travelled to Perugia for a weekend party without his security detail, where he acknowledged he had “certainly met” Lebedev, a former colonel in the Soviet KGB. Johnson said he reported the encounter to officials on his return.
Cooper asked Ford a string of questions about the meeting with Lebedev, also a former owner of the Independent and Evening Standard. “Did the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Security Service know about this meeting in advance? Was a detailed record made after the event of the meeting? Because there are rumours that the foreign secretary was too drunk to properly remember. Is that true?” she asked.
The Labour MP said the opposition had been asking questions about the meeting for months, and accused ministers of concealing information. “It’s bad enough covering up for parties and breaking the law, but covering up over national security is a total disgrace,” Cooper told MPs.
In an initial statement, Ford said that while Johnson had confirmed the fact of the meeting on Wednesday, she did not have “any information about the content of discussions that may or may not have been had with Mr Lebedev”.
The minister was then pressed by the Labour backbencher Chris Bryant as to why no record of the meeting with Lebedev had appeared in Foreign Office transparency records, but only a reference to an “overnight stay” with his son Evgeny Lebedev on 28-29 April 2018.
Bryant said this suggested that Johnson had in fact made no declaration of the meeting with Alexander Lebedev, despite what he had told MPs on Wednesday, because it would have appeared on the record.
In reply, Ford was forced to change her answer. At first she said: “It is my understanding that the prime minister confirmed that he had met Mr Lebedev without officials present and that he subsequently reported those meetings to officials.”
But a few moments later the junior minister was less certain. “I have just been passed a note that apparently the prime minister says that he thinks he mentioned this meeting to officials,” prompting calls of derision from the Labour benches. “I am reporting what I have been told,” she said.