Boris Johnson’s claim that he didn’t meddle in a Saudi bid to buy a top English football team was in doubt last night after it emerged he said ‘brilliant’ when told the deal was set to go ahead.
The Prime Minister’s jubilant response was to a Downing Street aide who he had asked to intervene after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman objected to the way 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 may have been rescued, 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, blocked by the English Premier League two months earlier, had succeeded.
The EPL veto had come after human rights protests at the Saudi regime’s suspected role in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
‘Any news from Saudi?’ the Prime Minister asked Middle East expert Lord Lister 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 tour the Nassif House in the historic quarter of Jeddah on January 25, 2018
The peer told him: ‘A call is being set up. The Newcastle deal will hopefully be signed this week.’
The PM replied: ‘Brilliant.’
Mr Johnson visited Saudi Arabia in a £14,000 all-expenses-paid trip just two weeks before Mr Khashoggi’s murder. He was a backbench MP at the time.
His reaction is at odds with repeated claims by Downing Street that Mr Johnson did not interfere in the row over the Saudis’ frustrated attempt to buy Newcastle.
The Daily Mail can today reveal that the Prime Minister claimed privately that a Tory donor with close links to the Saudis contacted him over the Newcastle row and appeared to hint at getting a peerage in return for resolving Anglo-Saudi disputes.
This newspaper can also reveal new evidence of the extent of Bin Salman’s fury in his June message to the Prime Minister, with a warning that the UK economy would pay a price.
The Crown Prince said: ‘The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has opened its doors for the UK’s investments in various sectors and initiated a mutually beneficial investment program with large amounts of funding. The EPL’s wrong conclusion will unfortunately have a negative impact on both our countries economic and commercial relations.’
After Mr Johnson told Lord Lister of Bin Salman’s anger, the peer replied: ‘Tell MBS (Mohammad Bin Salman) that I am investigating on your behalf.’
This newspaper disclosed yesterday how Mr Johnson intervened after Bin Salman urged him to ‘correct and reconsider’ the ‘wrong’ decision by the EPL to veto the Saudis’ proposed £300 million takeover of Newcastle.
In his September message to Lord Lister, Mr Johnson said investment banker Ken Costa contacted him over the Newcastle deal and was ‘lobbying’ for a peerage in return for helping him with Anglo-Saudi relations.
Mr Costa, who has given tens of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives and was Theresa May’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, confirmed last night that he backed the Newcastle deal. But he dismissed the suggestion that he had ‘lobbied’ for a 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 North-East.’
South African-born Mr Costa, 71, is a former chairman of Lazard merchant bank and accompanied then Chancellor Philip Hammond on a trip to Saudi 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 led to protests by North East MPs, and 90,000 Newcastle fans signed a petition calling for an investigation.
In August, Mr Johnson wrote an open letter to the fans, supporting their campaign for the EPL to explain why the bid 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 involvement’ in a sale of the club, but his intervention was seen by some as siding in favour of the Saudis and against the EPL.
In recent days there has been speculation that the Newcastle bid by the Saudi state-backed Public Investment Fund could go ahead after all.
A deal put together by financier Amanda Staveley and the Reuben brothers was agreed with Newcastle owner Mike Ashley a year ago. The EPL blocked it after the Saudis refused to say if the state would be the ultimate owner.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the proposed takeover was a ‘commercial matter’ and the Government ‘was not involved at any point in the takeover talks’.
He added: The Prime Minister asked Lord Lister to check on the progress of the talks as a potential major foreign investment in the UK. He didn’t ask him to intervene.’