Liz Truss, the current favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservatives among party members, hosted a lunch at an expensive private club owned by a Tory donor after overruling civil service advice to look for a cheaper venue.
Leaked correspondence has revealed the foreign secretary “refused to consider anywhere else” and asked that public funds should pay for a £3,000 event with Joe Biden’s trade representative.
Civil servants were so concerned at the cost and the venue’s close links to the Tories that the proposal was referred to the most senior official at the Department for International Trade.
According to the correspondence, Truss, then the trade secretary, “explicitly asked that we book 5 Hertford Street”, which is owned by Robin Birley, a £20,000 donor to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign and the half-brother of Zac Goldsmith, the environment minister.
The venue agreed to reduce the bill to £1,400, but on condition of immediate payment – which meant civil servants had to use an emergency process to pay up straight away.
The correspondence, disclosed by the Sunday Times, comes as Truss’s supporters conduct a campaign for her to succeed the prime minister should he be toppled by Tory MPs.
Truss and her companions drank two bottles of dry gin, three £153 bottles of Pazo Barrantes Albariño, a Spanish white wine and two bottles of the French red Coudoulet de Beaucastel at £130 a bottle, it was reported.
Before attending the event with US trade representatives, a civil servant described the club as “obviously incredibly expensive and more than I understand we’d usually expect to pay for such a venue”.
“[Truss] is hosting [the US trade representataive] Katherine Tai tomorrow for dinner,” an email read. “She wishes to do so in a private dining room.
“[Her special adviser] is insisting it takes place at a private members’ club called 5 Hertford Street. She’s recommended this based on having been there before – her argument is that it’s of the appropriate size and standing.
“To my knowledge we haven’t hosted anyone there before as a department.”
The email, sent on 15 June, said officials had suggested another option, Quo Vadis in Soho, which “costs only £1,000”.
This was refused on behalf of Truss, because she was “insisting we book 5 Hertford Street” and Quo Vadis would be “inappropriate”.
The email continued: “Something we’ve just discovered is the owner … is Robin Birley, a donor of the PM, Conservative party and Ukip.
“I understand the venue hosts party events, which is presumably how [Truss and her special adviser] know it.”
Civil servants subsequently entered negotiations with the venue regarding the price, leading to its events manager agreeing to waive hire fees and reduce the overall bill to £1,400 on the agreement it was paid immediately after the meeting.
The condition left civil servants having to use an emergency process to sanction the payment. The permanent secretary, John Alty, said he was “content” with the agreement.
The disclosure has led to calls for further disclosures over the event. The Department of Trade in November told the Mail on Sunday that the venue was chosen due to availability at short notice, not because Truss had insisted upon it.
The lunch was condemned by Labour MPs. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “It is shameful to see Liz Truss pushing against official advice to book a luxury lunch that brings in thousands of pounds of business to a Tory donor.
“Without a US trade deal in sight, the sheer incompetence of wasting taxpayer money is truly jarring. Whilst working people see their household budgets squeezed, Conservative ministers always manage to find ways to line their mates’ pockets.”
Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, wrote on Twitter that Truss has previously faced questions over her “expensive tastes”, and raised an example of the former international trade secretary’s decision to take three staff members to Vietnam and Singapore in December 2020.
Truss was forced to correct a parliamentary question about the south-east Asia trip and disclose that the cost to the taxpayer included £20,296 on flights, £3,980 on accommodation and £4,034 – or £250 a day for each person – on expenses.
Thornberry wrote that this “won’t be the last time Liz Truss gets in trouble asking the taxpayer to foot the bill for her expensive tastes”.
“This is about character, and if Truss’s natural instinct is to hide the truth and hope no one asks questions when it comes to small things, don’t be surprised when she does it about big things.”
Often considered to be London’s most exclusive club, 5 Hertford Street hosted Prince Harry’s first date with Meghan, but posted six-figure losses last year.
Truss is reported to have previously used it to host “fizz with Liz” dinners with MPs and “biz for Liz” receptions with potential donors, in preparation for a likely leadership bid.
A DIT spokesperson said: “This was a diplomatic working dinner attended by the previous international trade secretary, senior UK officials, and US counterparts from our largest single trading partner.”