'He's hiding something': Boris Johnson attacked over explanation of Lebedev meeting

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen has the latest on the meeting between Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary, and ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev

Boris Johnson has insisted his meeting with ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, at the height of the Salisbury poisonings affair, was not pre-arranged and he is not aware that any government business was discussed with the Russian.

The outgoing prime minister, in a letter to the Liaison Committee, insisted the meeting - during an event at the house of the oligarch's son, Evgeny Lebedev, in Italy - was entirely social and there was no need for security staff or civil servants to be present.

"This was not a formal meeting, nor something that was pre-arranged," he said, adding that he took no ministerial papers with him and, "as far as I am aware, no government business was discussed".

But the meeting is highly controversial because it was held while he was foreign secretary in 2018, straight after he attended a Nato summit to discuss how to deal with the Kremlin, following the Salisbury poisonings, which were carried out by two Russian agents.

Alexander Lebedev is an ex-KGB agent. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union. Credit: AP

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner hit out at the prime minister's explanation to the Committee, which was offered after his final appearance there, where he admitted for the first time meeting Mr Lebedev without officials present.

"The prime minister claims the meeting wasn’t pre-arranged and yet also says officials had been made aware in advance, but he apparently still can’t recall whether he discussed government business or not," Ms Rayner said.

"This letter suggests the prime minister has something to hide. He has failed to answer whether a private phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had been arranged or explain the presence of an undeclared and unidentified guest.

"As foreign secretary, Boris Johnson’s carelessness with words put people in danger. Every day he clings to office, there is new evidence of the risk to national security he poses."

It comes amid an investigation by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee over the appointment to the House of Lords of Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard, a shareholder in The Independent and Alexander Lebedev's son.

Questions have been raised about the controversial appointment after reports claimed UK security services had concerns about national security risks posed by the peerage.

The Sunday Times claimed security services withdrew that assessment after Prime Minister Johnson intervened, something he has denied.

Explaining his meeting with Mr Lebedev, the PM said: "In April 2018, I attended a social event at the house of Evgeny Lebedev in Italy.

"In the interests of transparency, I declared the overnight stay in the ministerial returns which can be found on gov.uk.

"At this social event, I also met Evgeny Lebedev's father.

"This was not a formal meeting, nor something that was pre-arranged.

"Officials were aware in advance that I was attending the social event.

"Contrary to some reports, my visit was in line with established security protocols under successive foreign secretaries.

Boris Johnson is friends with Evgeny Lebedev. He's pictured with the Russian millionaire here in 2009. Credit: PA

"It would not have been normal practice for civil servants or security staff to have accompanied me to such a private, social occasion.

"I did not take ministerial papers with me. If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present, for example at a social occasion, any significant content should be passed back to the department after the event.

"That was not necessary in this case. As far as I am aware, no government business was discussed."

Ms Rayner said the PM's "mealy-mouthed statement raises more questions than it answers".

"Keeping the British people safe should be a priority of government, but this web of murky relationships shows the Conservatives cannot be trusted with our national security," she said.