Labour has been successful in its bid to force the government release of documents relating to Boris Johnson’s involvement in the appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords, after Tory MPs abstained on a key vote today.
The opposition party put forward a ‘humble address’ motion, the result of which – unusually for opposition day motions – is binding on the government. The motion passed without a formal division as Conservatives were whipped to abstain.
The motion called for the disclosure of documents relating to advice from, or to, the Lords appointment commission held by the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office and the minutes of any meeting in which the matter was discussed.
Introducing the motion, Angela Rayner said the Prime Minister’s “cavalier disregard” for security warnings was part of “a wider culture in the heart of this government where the rules do not apply when it comes to appointing friends and donors to public office”.
“If the Prime Minister himself is willing to overrule British intelligence agencies, this raises serious questions about appointments more generally and specifically in the House of Lords,” Labour’s deputy leader added.
She argued that the Prime Minister appeared to be “more interested in attending parties with Russian billionaire mates than listening to the concerns of the British security services”.
“We have a PM who appears willing to jeopardise the security of the British public for the sake of a personal friendship,” Rayner argued, noting that Lebedev “will be a permanent feature of our parliament” for decades.
Paymaster general Michael Ellis said the government “regrets” the motion today, particularly because “there is a war in Europe, for the first time in many decades, and there are many pressing domestic concerns and issues”.
“It is somewhat surprising that the opposition could have brought forward for members to discuss this afternoon an issue over an ad hominem attack on a single individual,” the government minister added.
He also made the case that releasing the information requested would “undermine the very role of the House of Lords commission” and “chip away at the careful vetting procedures and the exchange of information that necessarily has to be discrete”.
Asked by Labour MP Clive Efford why the Conservatives were not being asked to vote against the Labour motion, Ellis replied: “I think he knows that the common practice is not to vote on opposition motions, and for very good reason.”
Lebedev took to Twitter during the debate to protest Labour’s motion and to confirm that Labour leader Keir Starmer had sent him a congratulatory text when he was offered the peerage.
The peer also tweeted: “There’s a war in Europe. Britain is facing the highest cost of living since the 1950s. And you choose to debate me based on no facts and pure innuendo. What’s become of you [Labour]?”
The Sunday Times reported earlier this month that intelligence officials withdrew an assessment concluding that the Lebedev peerage posed a national security risk after Johnson intervened. The Prime Minister reportedly described concerns as “anti-Russianism”.
The Lords appointments commission wrote to the Prime Minister in March 2020 advising against the ennoblement of the media mogul, based on MI5 and MI6 intelligence provided to the commission by Cabinet Office security officials.
Two days after the commission sent its initial letter of concern to the Prime Minister, Johnson met Lebedev at his home. Downing Street has not revealed what was discussed during the meeting.
Lebedev owns the Evening Standard and The Independent. He derives his wealth from his father Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire oligarch and ex-KGB agent.
Below is the full text of Labour’s humble address on the Evgeny Lebedev peerage.
Sir Alan Campbell
That, given the concerns raised about the appropriateness of, and process for, appointing Lord Lebedev as a member of the House of Lords and the role of the Prime Minister in that process, an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty that she will be graciously be pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, no later than 28 April,
(a) any document held by the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office containing or relating to advice from, or provided to, the House of Lords appointments commission concerning the appointment of Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev as a member of the House of Lords; and
(b) the minutes of, submissions relevant to and electronic communications relating to, any meeting within the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office at which the appointment of Lord Lebedev, or advice relating to that appointment, was discussed in a form which may contain redactions, but such redactions shall be solely for the purposes of national security.