Comrade Johnson: When Boris Met Sasha
- July 22, 2019
On the eve of Boris Johnson’s coronation as PM, I have a counterfactual for you, readers.
Imagine that we’re in 2015 in the middle of the Labour Party leadership contest. All polls suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is going to win. Only days before his inevitable election a Reuters reporter publishes a story alleging that Corbyn is a close friend of a Russian businessman and former arms tycoon – let’s call him Sergei Gorbovsky – with close connections to the Kremlin and the Russian secret service, the FSB.
The well-researched and detailed story also shows that said businessman has donated £1 million to the Labour Party, in addition to a £25,000 donation to Seamus Milne or Jennie Formby, say.
The story goes on to relate Gorbovsky’s contacts with other leading members of Corbyn’s campaign. It claims that Corbyn and Gorbovsky spent many hours plotting into the early hours for reasons that are not made clear; that Corbyn’s decision to run for the Labour Party leadership was influenced by conversations with a group of unnamed “East European businessmen”, who persuaded him to put his name forward.
As a result of these revelations pictures of Corbyn in his Lenin hat are plastered over every outraged frontpage. Angry politicians in the House of Commons deliver passionate speeches heavily sprinkled with words like ‘treason’, ‘communism’, ‘national security’ and ‘Russian oligarchs.’
There are calls for investigations into the “malign interference of the Kremlin in British politics.” Reporters doorstep Corbyn’s house. A worried-looking Laura Kuenssberg speaks on camera on the six o’clock news about the “troubling questions” these allegations have raised. Andrew Marr waxes indignant with every interview with a Labour MP. People want answers and they want them now.
In the real world, of course things are very different. And now, as we prepare for the worst government in British history to be replaced by the worst government in British history, it’s worth considering how different they really are.
On Friday, Reuters journalist Catherine Belton reported that Boris Johnson was a friend of a former Russian arms tycoon and resident in the UK named Alexander Temerko. According to Belton, Temerko made his fortune in the 1990s, like so many Russian oligarchs, and “forged close links with the Russian defence ministry and security services.”
After falling out with the Kremlin and falling foul of the law, Temerko fled to the UK, which is always more receptive to Russian oligarchs fallen on hard times than it is to refugees fallen on hard times who come to the country by boat.
According to Reuters, Temerko has given more than £1 million to the Conservative Party since he became a UK citizen in 2011. He also gave £25,000 to Boris Johnson’s campaign manager James Wharton – a paid adviser to the UK energy firm Aquind Ltd that Temerko directs – who also happens to be the MP who introduced the bill calling for a referendum on EU membership in 2013.
Temerko appears to be a strong supporter of Brexit, which he described as “a revolution against bureaucracy”. Temerko doesn’t say what kind of “bureaucracy” he is concerned about, but we can probably take it for granted that he isn’t overly concerned about bendy bananas or kippers on the Isle of Man
Tmerko comes over as rather slippery and elusive in Belton’s piece. Though he has at other times claimed that he isn’t a supporter of Brexit, he spoke warmly of his “close friend” Boris Johnson. Back in 2016, he told the BBC that Johnson would make ” a great Prime Minister” in the mould of Winston Churchhill. More than three years later Reuters describes how ” at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary from 2016 to 2018, they would often ‘plot’ late into the evening over a bottle of wine on the balcony of Johnson’s office at parliament in Westminster”.
So our Foreign Secretary was “plotting” with a former Russian arms tycoon with close connections to the Russian military and state security service – a man who praises Nikolai Patrushev the “hawkish head of Russia’s Security Council and former long-time head of the FSB security service”?
Quite the page-turner, this one.
Reuters doesn’t say what they were “plotting” about, but it does say that Temerko didn’t like Theresa May, and that he joined “an unsuccessful attempt led by members of a group of hardline Conservative MPs, the European Research Group, to remove Theresa May as leader in December 2018.”
Temerko appears to have switched his allegiance to Jeremy Hunt, and that might be why he told Reuters that ” a group of East European businessmen” had “helped sway Johnson into siding in February 2016 with campaigners for Britain’s departure from the EU after months of sitting on the fence.”
No one will be surprised that the ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg disclaims any links between Temerko and his group. Or that the Kremlin denies any connection between Temerko and the Kremlin. Or that neither Johnson nor any of his associates have wanted to talk to Reuters about these connections.
But going back to my initial counterfactual, what is truly jaw-dropping about this story is the reaction of the British media and its political class. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has described the Reuters findings as “extremely troubling” and suggested that they may indicate another attempt by the Kremlin “to disrupt, destabilise and influence our democracy”.
Bradshaw has rightly described it as “extraordinary” that an ex Tory MP running Johnson’s leadership campaign is also employed by Temerko.
And that, folks, is about it. Elsewhere there is nothing. No questions asked. No urgent questions in the commons. No six o’clock news. What did these ” East European businessmen” say to Johnson to make him change his mind about Brexit? Why do they care so much? Why did a former Russian arms tycoon give money to Johnson’s campaign manager, who also happens to be his own employee? Why is Temerko so keen on Brexit? What were he and Johnson “plotting” about?
As Buffalo Springfield once sang, there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear. There may of course, be perfectly innocent, logical and straightforward answers to all the questions Reuters has raised.
But it really is striking, as we contemplate the man who is about to become our next PM. is how few people even seem to be interested in asking or answering them.