A woman must lunch somewhere. When the prime minister told Liz Truss to examine every road post Brexit, her thoughts naturally turned to Mayfair and Hertford Street. Perhaps that nice caff at No 5. We are after all lunching with that nice American trade envoy, Katherine Tai. Perhaps two measures of dry gin; two bottles of Pazo Barrantes Albariño, a Spanish white wine, costing a total of £153; and three bottles of the French red Coudoulet de Beaucastel, costing a total of £130. Perhaps a £3,000 bill.
Besides, the proprietor of 5 Hertford Street is Robin Birley, half-brother to Boris Johnson’s mate Zac Goldsmith, and buddy of Michael Gove and David Cameron. And he tipped Johnson 20 grand for his “leadership” campaign, wherever that went.
Surely such generosity calls for a kindly nod and wink. 5 Hertford Street posted substantial losses last year, so the money might come in handy. Birley even halved the bill if it could be paid straight away. The office wants Truss to slum it in Soho. She hits the roof. Who wins trade deals in Soho? Besides, this is one for Birley.
The joy of British corruption is that there are no crude brown envelopes stuffed with notes. Money is never seen changing hands. Negotiation is via a pat on the shoulder, a placement at a dinner, a nod at the tennis net. There need not be a direct quid pro, but favours can flow both ways: a party donation, a contract, a planning refusal overturned, all rounded off with the knighthood or peerage.
The British like to pretend their political culture is pure, but benign terms have been used to mask questionable interactions. In times past, the Metropolitan police vehicle for the receipt of informal benefit was the “police benevolent fund”. It was the stuff of legend and occasional comedy. Now, at a time of wild budgetary spending, every dodgy oddball is crowding round the pig trough. Goodness knows what antics will be revealed, if ever, from the proposed inquiry into the pandemic. It should be standing room only at the Old Bailey.
The strangest transactions seem to revolve around politicians striving to live up to the dignity of their office, be it flat decorations, country houses or foreign holidays. Lunch at 5 Hertford Street is a classic. Turn to a party donor; at least he could host a good lunch.
Truss’s civil servants saw the danger a mile off and steered her towards a more modest watering hole. She would have none of it. It went to her permanent secretary, who let it through, but he is clearly a mouse not a man. Should it now go to the cohort of Whitehall standards scrutineers? If so they must be worked off their feet, with every self-respecting property developer or drug manufacturer feeling they are carrying the weight of the Tory party on their shoulders.
Perhaps the best discipline is daylight. Lunch at 5 Hertford Street is hardly a hanging crime. It rather indicates a general casualness towards public funds and relationships; an attitude of mind. Johnson was very nice to Truss. She returns the favour by shamelessly going on manoeuvres to replace him. Now she is currying favour with his friends. Is that who we want as a future prime minister?