In a first headache for Rishi Sunak’s new foreign secretary, the ex-adviser to the former prime ministers Ben Mallet was turned away at the border by Georgian authorities.
Mr Mallet – handed an OBE for “political and public service” in Mr Johnson’s resignation honours list – was due to undertake political consultancy work for Georgia’s United National Movement (UNM), according to party officials.
The row over his denied entry comes as Mr Cameron starts his first full day in new role as foreign secretary, attending cabinet for the first time after being handed a life peerage to join government.
The former PM – whose return has sparked a furious background from Brexiteers and Tories on the right – said he was “delighted and proud” to be joining Mr Sunak’s team.
Alexandre Crevaux-Asatiani, deputy director of foreign affairs for UNM, told The Independent that the move was a surprise given that Mr Mallet had been in Georgia the previous week.
“Ben is a political consultant that UNM has hired very recently. He was on his way back to Georgia from France and upon entry to Georgia they refused his entry for unknown reasons. I’d seen him the week before, I saw him last Thursday. Everything was completely normal and there is no reason to think the government would do anything,” Mr Crevaux-Asatiani said.
“It was a big surprise especially because of the way it was handled: I don’t believe he was given the right to an attorney, he was put into isolation [and] his electronic [devices] were confiscated and they were only returned when he was sent back,” Mr Crevaux-Asatiani added, saying that he believed Mr Mallet was now in Germany.
Mr Mallet, director of international campaigns at the US firm The Messina Group, has previously worked as an adviser to Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron. He also served as campaign director for the London Tory party during the recent London mayoral elections.
While no official reason has yet been given as to why Mr Mallet was not allowed into Georgia on this occasion, Mr Crevaux-Asatiani said he believes it is because preparations are underway for parliamentary elections next year.
“Ben is a regular political consultant who was supposed to advise us on messaging and priorities. I will say this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened,” Mr Crevaux-Asatiani said.
He also cited an incident in October where the State Security Service of Georgia accused the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) of holding an event that would help “train people in staging unrest”.
The US Embassy in Tbilisi called the allegations “false” and said they “fundamentally mischaracterise the goals of our assistance to Georgia.” The embassy said the event was to “help people to speak up for the issues that matter to their families and communities”. The embassy said USAID’s assistance is “transparent” and the embassy would “welcome any opportunities to discuss any concerns the government may have”.
Mr Crevaux-Asatiani said the decision over Mr Mallet has made his party “scratch our head”, but that it is a situation the party expects whenever there is “any time we have positive news from the EU”.
Last week, the European Union’s executive recommended that the bloc grant formal candidate status to Georgia, if and when it fulfils remaining conditions. These include Georgia aligning itself with the EU’s foreign policy sanctions, pushing back against disinformation and political polarisation, as well as ensuring a free and fair 2024 election.
As for Mr Mallet, Mr Crevaux-Asatiani said that “the entry ban is [a] one-time order” so “theoretically Ben can still try to come back. We hope he does. It will be up to the authorities to see what is next”.
The Independent has contacted the Foreign Office, the UK embassy in Tbilisi and Mr Mallet for comment.