Johnson peerage for Lebedev crowns mutually beneficial friendship

  • london
  • July 31, 2020
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Boris Johnson has never made any secret of his enduring friendship with Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian-born newspaper owner with a reputation for throwing decadent parties.

He has just been less keen to discuss what happens at these glamorous events, many of which have taken place at Lebedev’s restored castle in Perugia, Italy.

The pair first got to know each other in 2009 when Lebedev, then a man-about-town in his late 20s and best known in the tabloids for dating Joely Richardson and Geri Haliwell, bought the London Evening Standard with the help of his father, Alexander, a former KGB agent.

Lebedev, advised by the future Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig, decided to turn London’s biggest newspaper into a freesheet, giving him substantial influence over the capital’s politics. As a result Johnson, as mayor, was a regular social guest of Lebedev, aware of the influence of the hundreds of thousands of Evening Standards strewn over the commuter network.

When Johnson narrowly won re-election over Ken Livingstone in 2012, it was aided by an unusual front page Evening Standard editorial urging voters to back the “right choice for London”.

In 2015, Johnson and Lebedev spent a night on London’s streets together to highlight the issues of homelessness and rough sleeping.

Lebedev has often used the Evening Standard to promote his social circle, appearing in charity photoshoots and putting himself in the gallery of pictures from the newspaper’s annual theatre awards.

He is a noted animal lover and in 2012 told the Guardian: “I’ve got a flat in Italy, and I have a wolf there. His name is Boris. He likes to nibble on people’s backsides. And consumes a lot of kilos of meat a day.”

For Lebedev’s weekend parties at his restored Perugia mansion, guests were often flown from London on private jets.

Johnson is reported to have gone at least four times; on one visit he had allegedly been a guest alongside the model Katie Price. After another visit, while serving as foreign secretary, he refused to answer questions from the Guardian about whether he had kept his security detail while in the castle – although a picture of a dishevelled Johnson was provided by a member of the public.

Fellow passengers at San Francesco d’Assisi airport described the then foreign secretary as looking ‘like he slept in his clothes’. Photograph: Supplied

Lebedev has always enjoyed the social spotlight. The Guardian has revealed how in 2018 he hosted the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for a private dinner with high-profile guests including Richard Branson.

In December 2019 he hosted a birthday party for his father, which the prime minister attended the day after celebrating his general election victory.

Despite this, Lebedev’s media business has been struggling. The Standard was making a heavy loss before the pandemic and has now lost most of its commuter audience.

Last month he appointed Emily Sheffield, the sister-in-law of the former prime minister David Cameron, as the paper’s new editor, replacing the former chancellor George Osborne.

His ownership of the Independent, which has seen him shut down the print edition and turn it into a website with enormous global reach, has also attracted attention.

One of the final acts of Theresa May’s government was to launch an investigation into the sale of 30% stakes in both the Standard and Independent to mysterious off-shore companies ultimately controlled by the Saudi Arabian state.

After lengthy legal hearings, media regulators concluded the deals should be allowed to go ahead, a conclusion endorsed by the Johnson government.

Despite the well-known closeness between Johnson and Lebedev, the announcement that the media owner will be made a crossbench peer was still greeted with shock.

It is not clear when the men last met or spoke. But newly released transparency data shows the prime minister met with unknown representatives of “Lebedev Holdings” on 19 March, his last declared meeting before imposing a nationwide lockdown.