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Prime Minister’s Meeting with Alexander Lebedev

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 7 July 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the meeting between the Prime Minister and the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev at the height of the Skripal crisis.

Alexander Lebedev is a well-known former KGB officer and a former owner of the London Evening Standard newspaper. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee, in response to questions from the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), that he had met Mr Lebedev

“on a very few occasions”.

I understand that the Prime Minister also confirmed that he had met Mr Lebedev without officials present and that he had subsequently reported those meetings to officials as required. I do not have any information about the content of any discussions that may or may not have been held with Mr Lebedev.

All Government Ministers are made fully aware of their responsibilities to safeguard national security and sensitive information. It has been a long-standing policy of all Governments of all colours not to comment on intelligence or national security-sensitive matters, as to do so could jeopardise the very security that it is the first duty of Government to protect. In response to the Salisbury attack, the UK expelled 23 Russian intelligence officers and significantly strengthened our defences against Russian interference in the United Kingdom.

We sought this urgent question despite the meltdown in the Government because it goes to the heart of our national security. Yesterday, the Prime Minister admitted to the Chairs of the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Accounts Committee that in April 2018 as Foreign Secretary he met the former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev—the father of Lord Lebedev—in Italy without any officials and without any security. He went there straight from a NATO meeting, where the top item on the agenda was Russia, at the height of the Salisbury poisoning crisis after Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been attacked and before Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess had been exposed to the remaining Novichok. That was a chemical weapon attack by Russian agents on British soil that targeted two British residents, had life-changing effects for a British police officer and killed a British citizen.

On 20 May this year, Alexander Lebedev was sanctioned by the Canadian Government—a Five Eyes partner of the UK—for being one of the 14 identified people who

“have directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine and bear responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine.”

The UK has not yet sanctioned him.

The charges against the Prime Minister are about not just a lack of integrity but a complete disregard for basic national security and the patriotic interests of the country. Those charges lie not just with him but with all those who have enabled him and covered up for him on this issue. Did the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Security Service know about the meeting in advance? Was a detailed record made of the meeting after the event—there are rumours that the Foreign Secretary was too drunk to properly remember? Is that true? There are also rumours that Alexander Lebedev was trying to arrange a phone call from the meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Is that true? Did that phone call happen? The record of Ministers’ interests says that the Foreign Secretary accepted hospitality in Italy for himself and a guest, but he travelled home alone. Who was that guest? Did that put him in a compromising position?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister referred to several meetings with Alexander Lebedev without officials. When were the others? Were any of them while he was Prime Minister? The shadow Security Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), has been asking for confirmation that that meeting happened for months, so why have Home Office Ministers, Cabinet Office Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers all been covering up? It is bad enough covering up for parties and breaking the law, but covering up over national security is a total disgrace. It puts all our safety and security at risk. It is not just the Prime Minister but the whole Government who are letting the country down.

I do not expect the Minister to take everybody. This session will be short, because we have a lot of other business.

I take issues of our national security extremely seriously, which is why I am at the Dispatch Box today. Day after day, Ministers in the Government, especially Foreign Office Ministers, make decisions that affect the safety and security of UK citizens; in the case of Foreign Office Ministers, especially UK citizens overseas.

On sanctions, the UK has introduced world-leading sanctions packages since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine—that is over 12,000 individuals. I cannot comment on any further sanctions, as we never comment on sanctions in advance, but I can comment that, since 24 February, I, like other Foreign Office Ministers, have carried out my duties in signing off a number of those sanctions.

The last 48 hours of this hapless Government have been quite disgusting to any decent person who has been submitting to the spectacle of it. And the last few years have not been much cop either: somebody who is deeply inappropriate for public office, not least the highest office, aided, abetted and enabled by the venality and cowardice of people who are now falling over themselves to compete for sanctimony and hypocrisy.

We on the SNP Benches do not celebrate the departure of the Prime Minister—like getting rid of a headache, we are just glad he is going—but his toxic legacy will live on after him. We will all need to deal with the consequences of this disastrous Administration: his toxic legacy on inflicting his disastrous Brexit on us all; asleep at the wheel over climate change; allowing the cost of living crisis to accumulate, which all our citizens are dealing with; inaction on climate change; and breaking international law over Northern Ireland. We will all of us be dealing with that thereafter.

I am glad to hear the Minister takes national security seriously. I do not doubt it—

Order. First of all, the hon. Gentleman’s contribution is meant to be relevant to what we are debating. I have had nothing yet and you have just used your full minute. I will give you a couple of seconds to actually put a question.

I do, Mr Speaker. I am trying to chime with the mood of the House, rather than the Government.

The Minister takes national security seriously, but it is quite obvious from the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday that he has serious questions to answer. I appreciate that the Minister is perhaps not in a position to give a proper answer, but will she at least allow the prospect of a police investigation into the Prime Minister and the influence that Russian individuals have over him? His toxic legacy over national security cannot be something he can evade responsibility for.

I would say that—I will follow up as well to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—the Prime Minister did commit yesterday that he would follow up on the question from the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North at the Liaison Committee. He did commit to that. I have asked whether there is more detailed information on the discussions, but I do not have any information about the content of those discussions at this time.

Mr Speaker, I think the Minister inadvertently misled us earlier, because the Prime Minister yesterday—I was at the Liaison Committee—did not say what she said. He did not say—to the best of my memory, anyway—that he had notified other officials. If he had notified other officials, surely, as the Minister would understand, that meeting would have appeared on the transparency records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for April 2018 and it is not there. So, either she has misled us inadvertently today, or the Prime Minister did so, perhaps more deliberately, previously.

Obviously, I was not at the Liaison Committee yesterday. I was, as you may know, Mr Speaker, giving a ministerial statement on fast-tracking the ratification of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, another measure that is absolutely crucial to our safety and security here and, later in the Chamber, ensuring that we passed the funding. On the question, I repeat what I said in my opening words. It is my understanding that the Prime Minister confirmed that he had met Mr Lebedev without officials present and that he subsequently reported those meetings to officials. That is my understanding and that is what I have been told. If that is not an accurate reflection, I apologise. But this is not me misleading; that is what I was told.

According to intelligence reports that I have seen, a serving FSB officer reported in 2017, “Aleksandr Lebedev is considered by the FSB to be an important asset”. More recently, he has significantly expanded his businesses in occupied Crimea; pleaded with the Kremlin for economic help for occupied Crimea; and was revealed as the indirect owner of a company called Energomash, which supplies the Russian nuclear programme. How is it possible for the Prime Minister to stay in office if he is conspiring with an agent of the Russian state?

As the right hon. Member knows, I cannot comment on any potential future sanctions that may be introduced, because we never do that in advance. I cannot give any more comment on the particular individual that he is discussing.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked me to be more clear about what the Prime Minister said at the Liaison Committee. I have just been passed a note: apparently, the Prime Minister says that he thinks he mentioned this meeting to officials. [Interruption.] I am reporting what I have been told.

It is deeply unsatisfactory that the Minister has come to the House so ill-prepared, because the matter has been doggedly pursued by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for many months. Does the Minister agree that, in the light of the admissions that were made at the Liaison Committee yesterday, it would be wholly inappropriate for the Prime Minister—if he is about to resign—to try to stay as a caretaker Prime Minister? These very serious allegations reflect on his ability to keep this country safe.

The Prime Minister is expected to make a statement shortly to the people of this country and I obviously cannot comment on that in advance. I do hear what the right hon. Lady says.

Just for my clarification, the Minister previously said that we will be getting something in this House. Are we now saying that it will be to the people and not to the House?

I understand that the Prime Minister is intending to make a press statement to the people of this country.

“Not satisfactory”—I admire your magnificent understatement, Mr Speaker.

Surely this admission illustrates why this man cannot remain as Prime Minister, even as a caretaker. He is simply not to be trusted. I have seen four other Prime Ministers stand at the Government Dispatch Box in my time in the House, and I cannot imagine any one of them becoming involved in an enterprise such as this. The relationship with Russia goes right through this Government. We were told four months ago that we would get the report on the golden visa schemes, but we still do not have it. When will that report be published? Why has it been delayed?

What we have heard is truly horrifying. It is deeply disturbing and worrying that the Prime Minister, as Foreign Secretary, met an agent of Russia. Let me ask the Minister this, because I have not actually heard her say it: does she condemn that meeting?

I just need to repeat again that all Government Ministers are made fully aware of their responsibility to safeguard national security-sensitive information, as I am and as others are. I cannot comment any further because I do not have any further details of the meeting.

The Minister really cannot come to the House so unprepared that she cannot give us any answers, when the Prime Minister has belatedly admitted that he met an agent of the Russian state while he was Foreign Secretary without any security or anyone else to listen to what he had to say to Putin’s henchman. She has to come to the House properly prepared and tell us why this disgraced Prime Minister has any right to stay in office for a second longer, given that he is now a direct threat to our national security.

As I said earlier, I take national security and the security of our citizens extremely seriously, which is why it is absolutely vital that the Government continue to have Foreign Office Ministers in place. I have inquired as to whether or not there are further details of the meetings—these alleged meetings—and I do not have any further details at this time.

Given that the then Foreign Secretary went from the NATO meeting to these meetings, did he have any Government papers in his possession at the time? Secondly, we know that the Prime Minister has been very careless in the past—I think his mobile phone number was publicly available for 15 years. Did he have his personal electronic devices with him at the time? If he did, were they searched and examined by the security services after that meeting?

As I have said, I do not have any further details at this time. I have asked to see whether there are further details, but I do not have the details at this time. The Prime Minister, however, has announced that he is stepping down and will be making a statement shortly, as we know.

Why did it take until yesterday for the Prime Minister to admit that he had met a KGB agent in secret? Will there be a published report on this matter?

The Prime Minister was questioned yesterday, and he answered the question yesterday. Today is today.

As we know, the Prime Minister often goes into meetings, has conversations and then has a lapse of memory. He had a lapse of memory after the meeting with Alexander Lebedev. Has he now recalled it and informed the Minister of the conversation in that meeting? It is not just a national security matter; Alexander Lebedev owns businesses in illegally occupied Crimea, which is Ukrainian, not Russian territory. It is a matter not just for us, but for the country of Ukraine.

We must remember that at the time, there had been a devastating attack against a civilian on UK soil, involving chemical weapons. That led to a massive effort by the Foreign Office to co-ordinate the expulsion of Russian diplomats from embassies all across the world. At this time, the UK is also working with our allies across the world to counter Russian disinformation and help to remind people across the world about Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine. In terms of the information that the hon. Gentleman requests, I do not have any further information at this time.

Where the Minister has said in answer to me or my colleagues that she does not have the information at this time, I do hope that we will get answers in writing in due course. My question is: what reassurance can the Minister give us that the Prime Minister has had no meetings with any other KGB agents or other people who pose a threat to our national security?

I understand that at the Liaison Committee yesterday the Prime Minister committed to following up in writing with the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, so there is a commitment to put information in writing. That is important. I cannot comment on any further meetings.

I do not think that the Minister understands quite how serious the issue is, and not only for our own national security; at a time when Ukraine is defending its own right to its own land, this is completely undermining President Zelensky. What analysis has the Minister’s office undertaken to understand the impact of the Prime Minister’s secret meetings?

May I just say that Russia is a top national security priority for this Government? We have made huge strides to counter the threat by the Russian state. The National Security Council agreed the Russia strategy back in 2017. The Government published a full and comprehensive response to the Intelligence and Security Committee report back in January 2020, implementing a majority of the Committee’s recommendations. We have closed the tier 1 investor visa route, which I believe was introduced by the Labour party. We continue to call out Russian malign activities where they occur across the globe.

Open Democracy has reported that the Conservative party has received £62,000 from Russian-linked donors since the beginning of the current escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, including a further £50,000 from Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to Putin’s former deputy Finance Minister. We know that money buys influence. What analysis has the Minister carried out of the influence that this money buys and where it goes, and of the national security implications?

Transparency of information about political donations is very important. Only individuals on the UK electoral roll, or UK-registered companies, are allowed to make such donations. It is an offence for political parties and other campaigners to receive donations from impermissible sources, and that includes donations from foreign nationals living abroad. That is the law, and that is the law that all parties, including the Conservative party, need to uphold.

Given the revelations of the last 24 hours and the suspicions that have existed for a number of months, if not years, why would any of our allies share any sensitive information with us now, while the current Prime Minister remains in office?

Because the UK has been leading the international efforts to stand up for Ukraine against Russian aggression. That is why allies across the world have been working with the UK: because we have been helping to lead the efforts to stand up for the people of Ukraine during the attack against their sovereignty, their democracy and their freedom.

That the meeting with Alexander Lebedev took place is not in question, but much controversy has surrounded that meeting, and many people feel that there is a lack of detail about what took place. May I respectfully ask the Minister, for whom I have a fondness, whether a full disclosure of all that has been discussed with Alexander Lebedev will be made available, and whether the threat to national security—given Lebedev’s close links with the KGB and the Kremlin—will be disclosed at the same time?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I cannot disclose any further information at this time, although I appreciate that Members want more information. He will also recognise that we would not disclose any information that might put the security of our own citizens further at risk. It is extremely important for us not to disclose information from time to time if it would put people at risk. However, in answer to questions asked yesterday by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the Prime Minister committed himself to writing to her. She has that commitment from him, although he has of course said since then that he will be stepping down, and he is expected to give further information about that.

Before we start business questions, I wish to refer to an exchange between the Leader of the House and me about the Youth Parliament during last week’s business questions. We will have to lay a motion for that, but I should point out that the letter in question had not arrived at the office of the Leader of the House in time. I want to clarify that he was absolutely correct about that. I am sure he will now take this forward with great heart and with great speed.