Brendan O’Hara – 2022 Speech on Lord Lebedev Joining the House of Lords

The speech made by Brendan O’Hara, the SNP MP for Argyll and Bute, in the House of Commons on 29 March 2022.

I shall heed the warning about moderation and good temper, which I am sure my SNP colleagues would say is in my DNA and runs through me like the writing in a stock of rock. Should I stray, I am sure that you would bring me back into line, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I was fascinated by the start of the Minister’s speech and I tried to intervene, but he would not take my multiple attempts to do so. When he got to his feet, he began by questioning the appropriateness of the Opposition holding such a debate on this topic. Literally minutes before he questioned how appropriate it was, Lord Lebedev said:

“There’s a war in Europe”—

hon. Members will recognise the phrase—

“Britain is facing the highest cost of living since the 1950s. And you choose to debate me based on no facts and pure innuendo.”

That was precisely the Minister’s opening gambit, which prompts the question: did he write the Minister’s speech or did the Minister write his tweet?

That assertion was absurd, because we have come to learn, often through painful experience in this place, that when this Government and this Prime Minister assure us that there is nothing to see, it is wise to keep looking. That is why we fully support the motion and why, when the House divides, we will vote for the Government to hand over all documents, all minutes of meetings and all electronic communications containing or relating to the advice that they received about the appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords.

I reiterate in the strongest possible terms that today’s debate is absolutely not about being Russophobic, as the Minister would shamefully have us believe. He said that to try to throw up a smokescreen cover for his beleaguered Prime Minister, and it does the Prime Minister and this House no service whatever to try to suggest otherwise. As has been said many, many times in this Chamber, our fight is not with the ordinary Russian citizen, but with Putin, his political leadership in the Kremlin and his friends, including the oligarch billionaires who have plundered Russia’s wealth and resources and shipped them overseas, all too often to the UK and the City of London. Once they were in the UK, those billionaire oligarchs found many people in business and politics who, in return for their slice of the cake, were only too willing to facilitate the kleptocracy by hiding the oligarchs’ plunder for them while providing them with what they desired most: a cloak of respectability.

The UK’s willingness to welcome vast amounts of Russian money with very few questions asked about the source of that wealth means that there are now many Russians with close links to Putin who are very well integrated into the UK and who simply, because of that enormous wealth, have attained significant influence among the UK’s business, social and political elites.

Since this Prime Minister came into office in 2019, £2.3 million of Russian-linked cash has been funnelled directly into the Conservative party. That has happened to such an extent that even the Intelligence and Security Committee raised serious concerns about undue influence being sought and, indeed, gained by friends of President Putin with the UK governing party.

That influence of dirty Russian money has not gone unnoticed abroad. Professor Sadiq Isah Radda, the most senior adviser to Nigeria’s President on all matters of anti-corruption, described London as

“the most notorious safe haven for looted funds in the world today”.

That is where we currently are in the world standings.

In January this year, as Putin prepared to invade Ukraine, the Centre for American Progress warned the City of London that

“uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry”.

It was always going to be the case that when Putin finally did unleash his illegal war in Ukraine, the UK would be forced to look at our role and how we have facilitated his gangster regime.

Stewart Hosie

My hon. Friend will have noticed that the Minister described the motion as a misuse of powers, implied that it would impede the Prime Minister in his constitutional role and argued that it is about a witch hunt against a single person. Is the truth not that the motion is about allowing us to understand whether or not the process of appointment has been corrupted? As my hon. Friend has mentioned Russian money, can he throw some light on why the Minister has doubled down on those ridiculous arguments?

Brendan O’Hara

Perhaps the Minister could reply for himself. I have no idea why he would double down on those ridiculous arguments.

My right hon. Friend is right that this is not about an individual. It is about a corruption of process, and that was always going to lead us to a re-examination of the Prime Minister’s decision to send Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords for philanthropy and services to the media, as he put it. As we have heard, Mr Lebedev is a Russian businessman who derives his enormous wealth from his father, Alexander Lebedev, a former London-based KGB spy turned oligarch who still has investments in illegally occupied Crimea. At the start of this month, The New York Times said of Evgeny:

“Nobody is a better example of the cozy ties between Russians and the establishment than Mr. Lebedev.”

Just how cosy that relationship is can be seen from the fact that the British Prime Minister personally campaigned for a peerage to turn plain old Evgeny into Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation, for the rest of his life.

I could go on about the absurdity of the House of Lords—the absurdity of a so-called democratic Parliament having an unelected upper Chamber into which family chieftains, high-ranking clerics of one denomination, failed and retired politicians and those with deep pockets who are prepared to bankroll a political party are thrust—but I will resist.

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)

I make it clear that I have never met Lord Lebedev; I do not think I have ever been in the same room as him—but Dmitry Muratov has. He is editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper in Russia. The House will remember that he is also a Nobel peace laureate. He has said:

“The narrative being peddled in parts of the British media about him and his family is not only misjudged but actively dangerous. I urge you to consider who benefits from such untruths being told about a family that is known to be vocally critical of the Kremlin.”

Is the Scottish National party doing the same thing?

Brendan O’Hara

With the greatest respect, we most certainly are not. If this Government are so scared of shining a light that has to be shone, at this of all times, there will be accusations of a cover-up and a belief that there is something to be hidden—something that this Government do not want seen. The debate today is all about allowing transparency. That is what this House should be all about, but unfortunately the Government and Conservative Members seem to be terrified of it.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Is not the real concern that the Prime Minister seemingly ignored Security Service advice? That is the issue. We do not make criticism of appointing the person as a peer; the concern is that the Prime Minister ignored security advice and appointed him despite that advice.

Brendan O’Hara

The hon. Member is absolutely right. This is about why the Prime Minister chose to ignore the advice of the security services, but there is also a hugely important back story about what got us into the position where he did so, and the implications of that.

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)

My point is a rather similar one: if there was no problem with Lebedev being appointed as a peer and if the guidance from the security services was benign, what is the problem with scrutiny of that advice, which would put to rest all the concerns that people have?

Brendan O’Hara

That is right. A theme appears to be emerging on this side of the House. All we want to do is see what was there. All we want is to be reassured that the advice of the security services was not ignored, and that the appointment of Lord Lebedev was above board and beyond reproach. I do not think that, in a democratic system, that is too much for the House to ask.

As Putin’s army continues to commit its war crimes in Ukraine, we have to get to the bottom of how a man with such close connections to the Kremlin was parachuted into this Parliament. We have to establish exactly what advice was given to the Prime Minister by the security and intelligence services in the summer of 2020, and whether or not he chose to overrule that advice, or sought to alter it in any way, in order to get the outcome that he required.

We know that this was not a straightforward appointment. It could not possibly have been, particularly since, almost a decade ago, the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, made it clear that he did not consider it at all appropriate for Mr Lebedev, then the owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent, to join him at MI6 headquarters for lunch. Advisers to the Prime Minister would have known for years of those security service concerns, and one would have hoped that an aspiring politician—or an aspiring Prime Minister—might be wary of becoming too close to Mr Lebedev, but that was not the case. It would appear that in return for favourable headlines in the Evening Standard, Mr Lebedev gained access to the centre of power in the Conservative party, and, particularly after 2019, the centre of the UK Government itself.

Surely Mr Lebedev’s very public utterings about the illegal annexation of Crimea should have set alarm bells ringing in the Conservative party. Did no one in the Conservative party hear or take notice of him calling on western Governments to “stop cold war rhetoric” when they condemned Russia for its aggression in Crimea? Did no one notice his justification that because Crimea had been Russian “for many years”, this was not something to get overly upset about? Did his claim in 2014 that Russia would not be making

“any further incursions into any land”

fall on deaf ears?

The clues were all there, if people chose to look for them. On Syria, Mr Lebedev said that Putin had “shown leadership” in the conflict, and urged the west to accept his offer of a coalition. He followed that up by saying, “Let us keep Assad in power”, because it would be the least worst option, and he doubled down on that by saying:

“On this point I am emphatically with Putin.”

The list is endless. Where was the condemnation of the events surrounding the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and how in the name of the wee man did our Prime Minister end up having an off-the-record talk with Lord Lebedev—or Evgeny Lebedev, as he was then—48 hours after the Skripal poisonings?

Claire Coutinho (East Surrey) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman at least concede that it was the Conservative Government who led a very robust international effort to respond to the Skripal poisonings, and that the Labour party was, at that time, led by someone who refused to condemn them?

Brendan O’Hara

The Skripal poisonings fit into this debate beautifully, because the fact is that an off-the-record meeting was held between the Prime Minister and Mr Lebedev within 48 hours, at the time of an international crisis, and we do not know why. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I thought that Members wished to intervene, but they are just chuntering.

Mr Lebedev and the Prime Minister socialised. They are widely known to have socialised in Mr Lebedev’s castles in Italy and elsewhere, and in London regularly. Mr Lebedev was present in 2016 at the private dinner when the now Prime Minister decided he was going to back the Brexit campaign. I have no idea what Mr Lebedev’s view on Brexit is, but I do know that, in the year before, he wrote this in his newspaper:

“I have no doubt, based on conversations with senior figures in Moscow, that the Kremlin wants to make an ally rather than an enemy of Britain. And I also believe that it is in Britain’s best interest not only to work constructively with Moscow, but to be an active, engaged player on the world stage.”

I opened this speech by saying that when the Government tell us there is “nothing to see here”, we should keep looking. The danger here, however, is that there is almost too much to see to make sense of. We know that the Prime Minister has been absolutely compromised by his relationship with Lord Lebedev. The public have a right to know if the Prime Minister gave an individual a seat for life in this Parliament against the advice of the security services. Desperately not wanting that to be the case is no reason for Conservative Members to block the release of this material. If there is nothing untoward, the Government should publish the material and put the matter to bed for once and for all. Then we could let Baron Lebedev return to doing hee-haw in the other place, as he has done with aplomb since he arrived there 18 months ago.