Boris Johnson has a track record of slipping away from his security detail to attend parties thrown by billionaire socialites - and according to Italian media, he’s at it again.
Back in July 2019, The Guardian was tipped off that Johnson had been spotted the previous year at an airport in Italy “looking like he had slept in his clothes”, after partying with media owner Evgeny Lebedev in his converted castle near Perugia.
And now eyebrows are being raised over fresh claims by Italian newspaper Repubblica that the prime minister popped over to Perugia earlier this month.
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Downing Street has strongly denied the reports. So what exactly is going on?
The story so far
Late last night, Repubblica UK correspondent Antonello Guerrera tweeted a surprising exclusive: “According to a statement and local sources, Boris Johnson recently travelled to Perugia, in Italy, apparently on the Sept 12-13th weekend.”
Guerrera added that Downing Street had dismissed the claims, but says in his story that “local airport sources” told the newspaper that the PM had travelled through Perugia Airport.
An airport spokesperson backed up the claims, saying that both “Johnson and [Tony] Blair were here in Perugia last week” for separate events, Guerrera reports. One source is quoted as saying that the current UK leader arrived “on Friday 11 September at 2pm” and left the following Monday, and that former PM Blair was in Perugia from 8 to 11 September.
Johnson hosted a Zoom call with 256 Tory MPs on the Friday, but Gurrera says his “internet line was remarkably poor that evening and broke down for 20 minutes”. An MP on the call confirmed the issues, telling PoliticsHome that “when Johnson came back on the line he joked that he should probably invest in gigabit broadband”.
In a twist that has fuelled speculation, sources at the airport also said that a return flight on 14 September was delayed by 40 minutes - the same morning that Johnson cancelled a series of visits in London “at the last moment”, according to Repubblica.
Downing Street has flatly denied the claims as totally “wrong”. But as Guerrera notes, “Johnson has frequented several times Umbria’s main town”, mostly to visit British-Russian businessman Lebedev, who was nominated for a peerage by the PM in his most recent honours list.
So what is going on?
BBC Rome correspondent Mark Lowen tweeted this morning that Perugia airport was planning to issue “a clarification” of their statement that the PM was spotted there on the weekend of 12 September. But in a later update, Lowen wrote that the airport was “now telling us there will not necessarily be the clarification of the statement on Boris Johnson that they’d previously promised”.
However, Politico’s Alex Wickham reports that Downing Street officials say their boss has a seemingly watertight alibi: was at “his son’s christening in London on the Saturday”, which was hosted at Westminster Cathedral.
So is it all just an entertaining - if untrue - yarn?
Appearing on BBC News this morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to be hedging his bets, saying that Johnson was not in Perugia “as far as I am aware”.
But Conservative news site Guido Fawkes has wasted no time in rubbishing the “outlandish claims”, while eagerly anticipating Repubblica’s follow-up story: “Boris’s Italian doppelganger”.
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