Boris Johnson is refusing to give details of a trip he made to Italy when he was foreign secretary for a weekend-long party held at a restored castle owned by the media billionaire and socialite Evgeny Lebedev.
The Guardian has learned that the likely next prime minister went to Palazzo Terranova in Perugia in April 2018 at the invitation of Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and the Independent who is renowned for hosting glamorous events for the world’s rich and famous.
In a brief entry of ministerial interests on the Foreign Office website, Johnson declared he had an “overnight stay” with Lebedev on 28 April, travelling “accompanied by a spouse, family member or friend”.
Johnson did not give any further details of where he had been, who he was with or the reason for the visit – reportedly his fourth to Lebedev’s Italian home in recent years.
The Guardian has repeatedly asked Johnson to explain the trip and whether he took his official security team with him – the foreign secretary is one of a handful of senior government posts that are given 24/7 protection from the Metropolitan police. Johnson has declined to do so.
The Guardian has spoken to a number of senior diplomats and officials who say Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary showed he was too indisciplined, wayward and unfocused to be a good potential prime minister.
One said his lack of preparation during meetings marginalised the UK’s voice during important discussions about events in Syria and Libya, and that he often attempted “to substitute conviviality for competence”.
“Boris had a reputation for winging it,” said the official. “It’s not enough. You have to do more than that.” Another source said: “Boris will not be able to run a government.”
Johnson chose to travel to Italy last year at time when he was under great scrutiny. It would be highly unusual for a senior cabinet minister to travel alone, particularly one in such a sensitive post. Last April Johnson was dealing with aftermath of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury, which had led to rancorous exchanges between the British government and the Kremlin.
Neither the Foreign Office or the police were prepared to say whether Johnson had gone against protocol and travelled to Italy without security.
Lebedev, 40, was also in the spotlight at the time, having sold a 30% holdings in his newspapers to an investor with strong links to Saudi Arabia. The culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, has ordered the competition and media regulator to investigate the sale. The inquiry is ongoing.
Asked about the visit, Lebedev’s office confirmed Johnson had been there for the weekend and that he was among a number of guests. “Mr Johnson joined Mr Lebedev at his residence in Perugia for the weekend 27-29 April 2018,” the spokesman said. “Unlike some of the other guests, Mr Johnson did not use Mr Lebedev’s private plane for either his outbound or return flight to/from Italy but arranged his own flights.”
Lebedev’s office declined to give any further details about the weekend or about another trip Johnson is reported to have made to Palazzo Terranova, in October 2016. On that occasion the party is said to have been attended by the celebrity Katie Price and the actor Joan Collins, among others.
The former Labour cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw said Johnson’s unwillingness to be drawn on any questions about last year’s visit was untenable. “Boris Johnson cannot hide from scrutiny over this matter. If he visited the home of Evgeny Lebedev without his security detail … it would be recklessness of the very highest order.
“It would add to the concerns over his fitness to be prime minister and oversee our national security. Johnson should explain why he went to this party and whether his protection officers were with him that night.”
One person with knowledge of previous parties in Italy said Lebedev liked to invite people who would “create a spectacle by behaving in an outrageous way … There was always that bacchanalian aspect to those trips … it was all about having very important people reduced to doing very silly things.”
Lebedev has a dog called Boris, which has led to speculation that it was named after Johnson. The two men are understood to be friends who bonded during Johnson’s time time in City Hall.
Records show Johnson twice went to Lebedev’s Italian home when he was mayor of London. He went in early October 2014, staying for two nights. Lebedev paid for his flights and a taxi for him on his return to Luton airport.
He also went two years earlier. On that occasion Johnson said he had travelled to Italy for “purely personal” reasons and “not in his capacity as the mayor of London”. When asked about that trip, a spokesperson for the then mayor insisted it was “an opportunity to relentlessly promote his vision for London”.
In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, Lebedev said it was “unreasonable to expect individuals to spend millions on newspapers and not have access to politicians”.
In 2015 Johnson and Lebedev spent a night on London’s streets together to highlight the issues of homelessness and rough sleeping in the capital.
The Met said it could not discuss Johnson’s security arrangements when he was foreign secretary. “We simply do not discuss matters of protective security of this nature. If we confirm or deny that officers went on certain trips with certain people, then it could impact or undermine our security stance and operations in the future.”