Boris Johnson’s claim that he was not interfering with a Saudi bid to buy a top English football team was questioned last night when it was revealed that he said ‘brilliant’ when told the deal would go through.
The prime minister’s cheering response was aimed at a Downing Street employee whom he had asked to intervene after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman objected to the way in which a takeover of Newcastle United was blocked last year.
When Mr Johnson’s Downing Street strategist Lord (Eddie) Lister later told him the Newcastle deal might have been saved, the prime minister could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
The exchange came after Mr Johnson contacted Lord Lister last September to ask if attempts to revive the deal, which had been blocked by the English Premier League two months earlier, had been successful.
The EPL’s right of veto had come after human rights protests against the Saudi regime’s alleged role in the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Any news from Saudi Arabia?” the prime minister asked Lord Lister, an expert on the Middle East, on September 7, according to a well-placed source.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (2nd-L) sits with his British counterpart Boris Johnson (2nd-R) as they visit Nassif House in Jeddah’s historic district on January 25, 2018.
The colleague said to him, “A phone call is being established. The deal with Newcastle will hopefully be signed this week. ‘
The Prime Minister replied, “Brilliant.”
Johnson visited Saudi Arabia on a £ 14,000 fully paid trip just two weeks before Mr Khashoggi’s murder. He was a backbench MP at the time.
His response is at odds with Downing Street’s repeated claims that Mr Johnson was not interfering with the row over the Saudis’ frustrated attempt to buy Newcastle.
The Daily Mail may reveal today that the prime minister privately claimed that a Tory donor with close ties to the Saudis had contacted him about the Newcastle feud and appeared to be suggesting he would be peered in exchange for resolving Anglo-Saudi disputes.
This newspaper may also reveal new evidence of the magnitude of Bin Salman’s anger in its June message to the Prime Minister, warning that the UK economy would pay a price.
The Crown Prince said: ‘The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to the UK’s investment in various sectors and has embarked on a mutually beneficial investment program with large sums of money. The wrong conclusion of the EPL will unfortunately have a negative impact on the economic and trade relations of our countries. ‘
After Mr. Johnson told Lord Lister about Bin Salman’s anger, the colleague replied, “Please tell MBS (Mohammad Bin Salman) that I am investigating on your behalf.”
This newspaper yesterday announced how Mr Johnson intervened after Bin Salman urged him to ‘correct’ the EPL’s’ wrong ‘decision to veto the Saudis’ proposed £ 300 million takeover of Newcastle. and reconsider ‘.
In his September message to Lord Lister, Mr Johnson said investment banker Ken Costa had contacted him in connection with the Newcastle deal and ‘lobbied’ for peerage in exchange for helping Anglo-Saudi relations.
Mr Costa, who has donated tens of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives and was Theresa May’s emissary in Saudi Arabia, confirmed last night that he is behind the Newcastle deal. But he dismissed the suggestion that he had “lobbied” for peerage as “nonsense.”
He told the Mail: ‘There was a long discussion to see what was going on with the Newcastle deal. It was an opportunity for serious investment in the Northeast. ‘
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) at the Saudi Royal Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 14 October 2019
South African-born Costa, 71, is a former chairman of the Lazard investment bank and accompanied then-Chancellor Philip Hammond on a trip to Saudi Arabia to promote Anglo-Saudi business relations in 2019.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Costa.
The EPL’s decision to block the Saudi takeover of Newcastle sparked protests from Northeast MPs, and 90,000 Newcastle fans signed a petition calling for an investigation.
In August, Mr. Johnson wrote an open letter to fans, supporting their campaign for the EPL, explaining why the offer fell through. He added: ‘Many Newcastle fans were hoping this takeover would go ahead and I can understand their sense of disappointment.’
The prime minister said there would be “no government interference” in a sale of the club, but his intervention was seen by some as a party to the Saudis and against the EPL.
In recent days, there has been speculation that Newcastle’s bid from the Saudi state-backed public investment fund could still go ahead.
A year ago, a deal was struck by financier Amanda Staveley and the Reuben brothers with Newcastle owner Mike Ashley. The EPL blocked it after the Saudis refused to say whether the state would be the ultimate owner.
Yesterday, the prime minister’s official spokesman said the proposed takeover was a “commercial issue” and that the government was “at no point involved in the takeover talks.”
He added: The Prime Minister asked Lord Lister to monitor the progress of the talks as a potential major foreign investment in the UK. He did not ask him to intervene. ‘