Two years ago Boris Johnson reportedly intervened in the House of Lords appointments process to ensure that Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian media mogul, became Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. At the time, the security services withdrew an assessment that Lebedev’s appointment posed national security risks after Johnson intervened, according to the Sunday Times.
Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers and son of a former KGB agent, knew Johnson during his time as London mayor, and the Evening Standard supported his candidacy.
That cosy relationship is now under pressure. Just as the Tories are still struggling to pivot away from David Cameron’s embrace of the Chinese Communist Party, they are also smarting from their links to Russian oligarchs in light of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
On the BBC this morning (6 March), the Labour leader Keir Starmer called for parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee – which can view classified information – to investigate Lebedev’s appointment. Despite Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab’s assurances that the appointment process was stringent and proper, any investigation has the potential to cause political problems for Johnson as he seeks to move on from the Downing Street party scandals. There is a school of thought that the Ukraine crisis has saved Johnson’s premiership, and Starmer seemingly withdrew his call for Johnson to resign immediately in favour of a united front on Ukraine.
The problem, however, is that Johnson’s support for Lebedev reflects a broader culture of carelessness, in which the Prime Minister’s friends are rewarded and rules are dismissed. The award of a knighthood this week to Gavin Williamson, who was responsible for the A-level algorithm scandal as education secretary in 2020, is a case in point. Whether it is a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee into Lebedev’s appointment or further revelations about the Conservative Party’s connections with Russian oligarchs, Johnson’s proclivity to reward loyalty over competence and disregard the rules suggests that future scandals will continue to dog his time in office.