When someone at Perugia airport decided to drum up a bit of publicity on the back of the footballer Luis Suárez flying to Italy, they were probably hoping for a couple of lines somewhere in the sports pages.

They got a lot more than that.

Four days later, an innocuous press release about celebrity guests spotted at the airport resulted in a British media feeding frenzy – as well as an angry denial from Downing Street, an intervention from Westminster Cathedral, the forensic analysis of a backbencher’s Zoom records, and a sheepish clarification that Boris Johnson was not the same person as Tony Blair.

The mayhem began when the Italian newspaper la Repubblica reported on claims that Johnson had made a secret trip to Umbria a week earlier. “There is a new mystery surrounding Boris Johnson,” the English-language version of the story began, before explaining that airport sources had said he had flown into and out of the airport either side of a weekend getaway to the region.

There was speculation about a visit to the nearby estate of the Evening Standard owner and imminent lord Evgeny Lebedev, possibly in order to baptise his son.

The story had emerged, la Repubblica reported, from a press release put out by the airport after disgruntled Barcelona star Suárez’s visit to take an Italian test, and thereby secure himself an EU passport that would ease any transfer.

“Over the past few days, many names and personalities from the political, sporting and economic world have arrived here in Perugia,” the statement said. “From Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli to the British PM Boris Johnson, preceded by Tony Blair (former UK premier) and not least the champion footballer Luis Suárez … Umbria and our airport are at the centre of the world.”

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About 1,000 miles north of the centre of the world, a Downing Street source was quoted flatly saying that “this claim is wrong”. .

But such interventions hold little sway with critics of the government who remember – among other indiscretions – Downing Street sources’ complex relationship with the truth over the Dominic Cummings affair. It did not help that Johnson had been busted on an incognito trip to the region before, captured in an infamous photograph looking bleary-eyed and bedraggled after a weekend at Lebedev’s castle.

Before long, scenting old Etonian blood over an allegation that appeared to place the prime minister in the Italian countryside even as Brexit talks and the coronavirus pandemic lurched into their latest states of crisis, social media users had enthusiastically taken up the mystery as a national scandal.

There were memes of Italian eye tests, new claims that a “lady on the check-in desk” had confirmed the story, and derision of the idea that anyone would take the word of the prime minister over that of an anonymous airport PR, which is probably not the ringing endorsement on trust that Johnson was hoping for as he weighs the wisdom of a second lockdown.

By Monday afternoon, though, the story had comprehensively unravelled.

First Grant Shapps denied it. Then the backbencher Andrea Jenkyns gave the Sun a screengrab of Johnson on a Zoom call when he was supposed to be cavorting in a medieval palazzo. While the prime minister certainly looked like he would rather have been anywhere else, the picture did appear to place him firmly in Downing Street.

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Johnson could not have been in Italy, it was then said, because his son’s christening had taken place in London – an assertion later backed up by Westminster Cathedral.

Finally, the airport issued a crimson-faced clarification.

Records had been checked, and the single passenger on a private flight from Farnborough was “a private citizen and not Boris Johnson”; meanwhile, the enthusiastic PR person had simply confused two British prime ministers, and accidentally made it sound as if they’d both made a trip. And with that, Perugia airport’s brief intrusion into Britain’s political consciousness was over.





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