Michael Gove said he was never told that he or Boris Johnson should not meet Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev after reports that MI6 has had concerns about the Russian oligarch since 2013.
Fresh questions have been raised about Boris Johnson’s decision to nominate Lord Lebedev, whose father was a KGB agent in London, for a peerage after The Sunday Times revealed that the head of MI6 in 2013, Sir John Sawers, refused to meet him.
The prime minister has denied there were security concerns around his long relationship with Lord Lebedev.
Donation declarations show Mr Johnson visited the Russian’s Italian villa, and accepted flights and chauffeur-driven car rides with him while he was mayor of London in 2013 and 2014.
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Mr Gove defended Mr Lebedev, and suggested to Sky News that questioning his peerage nomination could play into Vladimir Putin’s hands during the Ukraine invasion.
He told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “I think one of the things that Vladimir Putin would like us to do is to have an approach in the UK that said that everyone of Russian ancestry was somehow persona non grata.”
Mr Gove said the security services had never told him he should not meet Lord Lebedev, who was made a peer in November 2020. Mr Johnson was reportedly warned against nominating him by MI6.
“I’ve met Lord Lebedev, as the prime minister has,” he said.
“At no point did anyone ever say to me that it would be inappropriate to meet him and talk to him.”
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Mr Johnson called claims he overruled security concerns to push through Lord Lebedev’s peerage “simply incorrect”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the prime minister has “serious questions to answer” about why Lord Lebedev was given a peerage after reported warnings from MI6.
He said he has written to the Lords Appointments Commission to ask them to review his appointment and release advice the panel gave if there were security issues around Lord Lebedev.
Sir Keir told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “This is a question of national security. Let us have a process to look into what actually happened.
“What did the prime minister know and what did he do in response to that?
“And I think that’s the least that we’re entitled to in relation to this appointment.”
Lord Lebedev has condemned the war in Ukraine and called on Mr Putin to end the invasion in a letter published on the front page of the Evening Standard.
He denied he is a security risk to the UK “which I love” and said although his father worked for the KGB “I am not some agent of Russia”.
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Lord Lebedev added that his family are “long-term supporters” of independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which he said campaigns “to expose hypocrisies and corruptions in Russia”.
He said supporting the paper, whose editor won a Nobel Peace Prize last year, has meant his family’s offices were raided and possessions seized, with his father imprisoned “on trumped up charges”
The peer added: “It seems absurd to me knowing what has occurred in recent years and the efforts we have taken that I have to deny some of the speculations made against me, which at times have bordered on the farcical.”