A trip Boris Johnson made to Italy for a party held by a billionaire socialite ended with the then foreign secretary at an airport “looking like he had slept in his clothes”, struggling to walk in a straight line and telling other passengers he had had a heavy night, the Guardian has been told.
Pictures of the now prime minister along with an account from a fellow traveller shed further light on Johnson’s weekend away at the home of the media owner Evgeny Lebedev, who is known for hosting uproarious parties for the rich and famous at his converted castle near Perugia.
Johnson has refused to answer questions about the visit in April last year, including whether he flew to Italy against the advice of his officials and without the 24/7 security detail usually assigned to the foreign secretary.
The pictures, taken at San Francesco d’Assisi airport on Sunday 29 April 2018, suggest he did go to Italy without a police escort. According to another passenger on the flight back to the UK, Johnson was on his own, seemingly without any luggage and very much the worse for wear.
The passenger, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was standing in the queue to go through security when he realised the scruffy man “shuffling along” in front of him was Johnson, who was clutching a thick book about war strategy.
“It was a surprise to see him. There was nobody with him and he didn’t appear to have any luggage,” said the source. “He was such a mess. He was quite dishevelled and his trousers were twisted and creased. He looked like he had slept in his clothes.”
Johnson was recognised by other British and Italian travellers, some of whom asked for selfies, before he retreated into a corner of the departure lounge to snooze.
The UK’s most senior diplomat was later overheard telling another passenger that he had had “a heavy night” and that he had been visiting friends.
When the passengers were called to the gate before getting on the flight, Johnson is said to have seemed a little off balance.
“When he was walking out to the plane, he did this curved walk. I really thought he was going to be sick on the tarmac,” said the source. After landing in the UK, Johnson was picked up straight off the plane by a waiting police car.
Johnson went to Palazzo Terranova in Perugia last year at the invitation of Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and the Independent.
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.
Lebedev’s office also declined to give details about the weekend or about another trip Johnson is reported to have made to the castle, 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.
Johnson chose to travel to Italy last year at time when he was under great scrutiny. The day before flying out he had been in Brussels for talks with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and other Nato leaders to discuss how to deal with Russia in the aftermath of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury.
Lebedev, 40, was also in the spotlight at the time, having sold a 30% holding in his newspapers to an investor with strong links to Saudi Arabia. The then culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, ordered the competition and media regulator to investigate the sale.
In court on Tuesday, Lebedev’s lawyers launched a legal fight to stop the government investigation, arguing that it waited too long and missed the deadline to intervene.
In response, the government said its decision was delayed, in part, because both Lebedev and the Saudi investors refused to provide key information.
David Scannell, the government’s legal representative, said the Saudi Arabian government could potentially exert editorial influence over the news outlets and claimed that the sale of the shares had “national security implications”.
The hearing was told the 30% stake in the Evening Standard and Independent had been bought in a series of “unconventional, complex, and clandestine” deals fronted by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel.
The tribunal was told the Standard and the Independent were unsure who ultimately employs the businessman.
The Guardian contacted Johnson’s spokesman, but he declined to comment.