Labor leader Keir Starmer has said the House Intelligence and Security Committee should investigate the circumstances surrounding Boris Johnson’s elevation of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords.
The request came after a new report that intelligence agencies had reframed an assessment that Lebedev’s appointment would pose a security risk following an intervention by the prime minister in early 2020.
Speaking on BBC One’s Sunday Morning programme, Starmer said he was very concerned: “There is at least the suggestion that the Government and the Prime Minister have been warned that there is a security risk national in this particular nomination.”
The Labor leader said the matter should be referred to the all-party committee, which acts as an intelligence watchdog, “so that they can look into this story, this allegation, which is very serious, because of course, it’s a national security issue.”
Later, Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, wrote to Johnson asking him to make available to the Intelligence and Security Committee any “advice and information” he received regarding Lebedev’s appointment, and that he should cooperate with any further investigation the watchdog wanted to make.
But Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, said there was “a very strict and rigorous process when someone grants a peerage. I don’t know the facts of the case. I did not participate. But I know it was applied very rigorously in this case.
Raab accused Starmer of exaggerating: “There is no evidence that there was any impropriety. There was none, and if there was, he had to produce it.
The controversy surrounding Lebedev’s appointment was reignited earlier on Sunday by a major report in the Sunday Times titled ‘Lebedev secured peerage after spies drop warning’, which followed previous reports in the Guardian and the Byline Times.
Downing Street nominated Lebedev, who describes himself as a British and Russian citizen, for a life peerage in July 2020. He took office as Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia the following December, although he did not voted since.
But the House of Lords Nominating Committee (Holac), which reviews nominations, initially asked Downing Street to reconsider in March 2020 after hearing evidence from the UK security service that Lebedev was seen as a potential risk to Security.
The spy agencies had informed the commission of the problem related to his father, Alexander Lebedev, a former Moscow spy. When the Cold War ended, Lebedev Sr worked undercover at the Soviet Embassy in London. His real employer was KGB foreign intelligence, and he left in 1992 with the rank of colonel.
Subsequently, Alexander moved into banking and media, buying the Independent and the London Evening Standard. Evgeny is now the owner of the Standard, in which he wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, saying: “I beg you to use today’s negotiations to end this terrible conflict in Ukraine.
Downing Street declined to reconsider the appointment. Two days after Holac wrote his first letter of concern, on March 19, Johnson met with Evgeny Lebedev, although it is unclear if peerage was discussed.
A source told The Sunday Times that the prime minister himself complained ‘it’s anti-Russianism’ in response to objections.
In July, Downing Street again submitted Lebedev’s name, to the surprise of some Holac members. Sources said what followed was a “back and forth” between No 10 and Holac, reflecting “concern over his background”.
Downing Street then requested further assurances from the security agencies. They said their fundamental assessment of the possible security risk was unchanged, but they also provided additional context, which sources said was enough to lead to a different result.
The peers reluctantly endorsed his nomination, with sources saying the committee felt “bounced back”. In their confirmation letter, they reportedly asked Johnson to examine Russian influence in the House of Lords, something the House Intelligence and Security Committee highlighted in its report on Russia.
Security sources have previously told the Guardian that Lebedev’s ‘family ties’ mean he is still seen as a potential concern. But they believe the risk is low, in part because peers do not see classified documents.
Both Downing Street and Lebedev pointed to his charitable and business activities as reasons for the peerage. “Raising £75m for UK charities and spending £120m to save two major UK media titles might have something to do with it,” Lebedev told The Guardian in the fall of 2020.