You like me probably remember the third week of March 2020 as though it were yesterday.
Covid-19 was on these shores in scale. Hospitals were filling up with acutely sick people.
On 16 March 2020 we'd been told by the prime minister to isolate at home for 14 days if we had covid symptoms, to work from home where possible and to avoid unnecessary contact with anyone. On 23 March Boris Johnson would announce full lockdown.It felt like the worst crisis since the second world war. It was the worst crisis since the second world war.So perhaps the most interesting revelation in today's Sunday Times story about the peerage given to Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian proprietor of the London Evening Standard, is how much time the prime minister spent in the middle of this disaster trying to reverse a recommendation by the security services that it would be inappropriate to make Lebedev a lord.To be clear, it's been known for some time that the initial advice of the security services was that it would be wrong to send Lebedev - whose father Alexander was a senior KGB officer, turned oligarch - to the Lords. This has been reported by Byline Times, the Guardian and Tortoise, inter alia.
What's new is the disclosure that on 19 March, Boris Johnson had a private meeting with Lebedev, just days after being told that his desire to ennoble Lebedev was being frustrated on the advice of the security services.That this meeting took place has been confirmed to me by three separate government sources. They also told me that the PM subsequently worked hard to over-rule that initial security advice and succeeded.
Lebedev's appointment to the Lords was announced in July 2020. He made his maiden and only speech there on 17 December 2020, since then he has never spoken again or voted.These sources tell me they were shocked at the time that the PM saw it as a priority to secure a seat in the Lords for Lebedev.
"Lots of people in Downing Street at the time thought it was morally wrong" said one. "It wasn't just that the security services were saying he was not suitable for a peerage. It's also that there was much more important stuff to be done"."I remember him [Johnson] being obsessed with the peerage being granted," said another source."I obviously thought it was extremely troubling given that week was the epicentre of the biggest crisis since 1945" said a third.A number of questions are begged. They include:1) Why was it so important to the prime minister that Lebedev should become a lord?2) Why was this even an issue at a time when protecting the nation from coronavirus was the obvious priority?3) What was said at the meeting the two had on 19 March?4) What were the precise concerns of the security services, and are they still relevant today in light of Nato's standoff against Putin, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine?According to my sources, the prime minister was closer to Ledebev than to any other proprietor. They put this down in part to the support Lebedev's Evening Standard gave to Johnson when he was the mayor of London.And as I wrote in my book WTF in 2017, as London mayor and then as foreign secretary Johnson would go every autumn to stay in Lebedev's lavish castle in Umbria for a social weekend - sometimes being flown in Lebedev's private jet, though in October in 2016, as foreign secretary, Johnson flew there on a commercial flight, and without his protection officers.I've also had confirmation that Johnson intervened to make sure the Standard received a slug of the government's substantial Covid advertising budget by asking the director for government communication, Alex Aitken, to make sure this happened.In Lebedev's one and only speech in the Lords, he said: "I was raised here for a large part of my life, went to state school and consider myself British, but I am also Russian, which means that I can never be casual about liberty, free speech or the rule of law. Freedom of expression needs its champions. In the post-war era it has rarely been as under assault as it is now. I intend to join hands with noble Lords who can see that and are determined to fight it."Which presumably means that he would welcome clearing up uncertainties about his elevation to the Lords, and so would back today's call by the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, for it to be investigated by parliament's intelligence and security committee.