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23 February 2022

Commons Confidential: Boris Johnson’s Lebedev headache

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Boris Johnson’s chumminess with and peerage nomination for the newspaper baron Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB agent, suddenly looks kompromat for the Prime Minister. The Russian-born Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia has rarely attended the House of Lords since Johnson ignored official warning bells and draped the bearded owner of the London Evening Standard and Independent in ermine. Warier Conservative MPs fear Johnson cavorting with the lordly socialite might create another party headache. My snout muttered there’s renewed concern about what he might have seen and done during as many as half a dozen visits to Lebedev’s Italian villa near Perugia, sometimes flying in the host’s private jet. The arch networker is known to throw uproarious bashes for the powerful, rich and famous. At one in October 2016 it was reported that the glamour model Katie “Jordan” Price lifted her top to reveal her assets in front of Johnson, who was then the foreign secretary. After another party in April 2018, when Johnson left his security detail behind in London, he was seen without luggage at the airport for a flight home “looking like he had slept in his clothes”, according to another passenger, and explaining he’d had a heavy night as he struggled to walk in a straight line. Clutched in his hand was a book on war strategy. How appropriate as Putin menaces Ukraine.

Liz Truss’s declaration that “nothing is off the table” lacks consistency when the Conservative Party has refused to return nearly £2m in Russian-linked money received since Boris Johnson became leader. But MPs championing the ambitious Foreign Secretary insist she’s enjoying a good war. Ridicule over that Thatcher pose in a Russian fur hat, a televised mauling over Ukraine by the Russia foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Truss confusing the Black and Baltic Seas would suggest otherwise. But in the Commons, her team are not very subtly asserting that standing up to Putin proves the new Iron Lady has the mettle to move up to the top job. Every crisis is an opportunity for those who want to be prime minister.

A curious tale reaches my ears of someone in Downing Street buying fine wines online at up to £150 a bottle during the Covid pandemic. The expensive vino, according to my informant, was purchased from a website allowing collectors to flog their booze. The wife of a recently deceased plumber was pleased to raise £5,000 flogging her former husband’s wine, if surprised to discover the dispatch address was No 10. Screw tops from Westminster’s Tesco Express or the Co-op on Strand in wheelie suitcases may not always be good enough for the Prime Minister and his wife.

Boundary changes are creating another headache for Johnson, with younger Conservative MPs worried they could be out on their ear “oop north” continuing to demand job guarantees. Whips are again whispering that older hands will be retired with knighthoods and peerages to create safe vacancies. It’s a chicken run for Tories with ruffled feathers.

Facebook’s metabucks apologist Nick Clegg is house-hunting in Spain, I understand. The former deputy PM’s formidable wife Miriam González Durántez, aka Lady Clegg, is from the country and her father rose through the Franco system before becoming mayor of Olmedo and a senator for the conservative People’s Party. Speculation in Westminster before the pair left for California was that she’d like her own political career.

The North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, a jiu-jitsu black belt who in his street-fighting years confronted violent far-right thugs in north-east England, had an unusual route into the Labour Party for a left-winger who supported Jeremy Corbyn. “I must be the only person to admit Roy Hattersley inspired me to join,” confessed Driscoll, “after I saw him on TV in a party political broadcast during the miners’ strike and wrote a letter.” Labour was a bigger tent back then.

Should nurse Paulette Hamilton turn up to parliament in fancy headgear after the 3 March Erdington by-election – Labour’s candidate is heavily tipped to become Birmingham’s first black MP – it could well be a gift from her hubby. Hamilton’s other half is Dennis the Hat Man, the owner of a famous clothing store by the city’s New Street station. Hats off to her if she wins.

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