On the eve of the first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in two unrecorded meetings with Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard, who would later be granted a peerage.
The first encounter took place on 18 March 2020, following Johnson’s evening press conference on COVID-19 and a brief meeting with the Chancellor. Around 7:30pm, Johnson held a 25-minute phone call with Lebedev, possibly overlapping with a three-minute chat with then Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
It remains uncertain whether Hancock joined the conversation briefly or if Johnson interrupted his call with Lebedev to speak with him. Intriguingly, Johnson spent more time conversing with Lebedev than with his own Health Secretary during those critical days. On the same evening, Johnson announced the closure of schools to staff and most pupils, with a full national lockdown declared on 23 March 2020 as COVID cases surged and deaths surpassed 100.
The following day, 19 March 2020, Johnson met Lebedev in person around 6pm, shortly after another press conference on COVID-19. His political secretary, Ben Gascoine, and director of communications, Lee Cain, were also present. At the recent COVID Inquiry, Johnson’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, who had been implicated in the ‘Partygate’ scandal, stated that he was aware of the meeting but not present, and no civil servant was in attendance. Reynolds, however, admitted he didn’t know the details of their discussions.
Johnson’s decision to meet Lebedev privately during such a critical time alarmed the inquiry lawyer, who questioned why this choice was made. Reynolds responded that it was ultimately the Prime Minister’s prerogative to manage his time, although he might have queried the decision. Reports suggest that Johnson was particularly keen to ensure the Evening Standard received a significant share of the government’s COVID-19 advertising budget.
This advertising allocation, termed “covid bungs” by former advisor Dominic Cummings, directed substantial subsidies to a select group of newspapers. Johnson personally intervened to ensure the Evening Standard benefitted from these agreements. Just a few months later, in July 2020, Lebedev’s controversial nomination for a life peerage for his philanthropy and contributions to the media was confirmed.
Lebedev, now Baron Lebedev, has made infrequent appearances in the House of Lords since his appointment. The House of Lords Appointment Committee had expressed strong reservations about his peerage due to security concerns, yet Johnson disregarded their advice. The long-standing friendship between Johnson and Lebedev dates back to the former’s tenure as London mayor, during which Lebedev extended several ‘free’ holidays at a luxury villa in Italy. This hospitality also included the presence of Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny’s father and a former KGB agent.
Given the Evening Standard’s reliance on commuter circulation and ad revenue, Lebedev held a vested interest in the issue of remote work, though no wrongdoing is implied. By this point, Johnson had already encouraged people to work from home if possible. Johnson expressed confidence in overcoming the pandemic, but on 27 March 2020, he himself contracted COVID. Notably, several illicit gatherings in Whitehall occurred after this incident.