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Liz Truss insisted on hosting a lunch at an “incredibly expensive” private club owned by a Tory donor, overruling her officials’ advice to go somewhere more suitable.
Leaked correspondence has revealed the foreign secretary “refused to consider anywhere else” and requested taxpayers’ cash for a £3,000 event with Joe Biden’s trade representative.
Her civil servants were so alarmed at the cost – and the venue owners’ close links to the Tories – that the proposal was referred to the top official at the Department for International Trade (DIT).
But Ms Truss, then the trade secretary, “explicitly asked that we book 5 Hertford Street”, which is owned by the millionaire aristocrat Robin Birley, a 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.
A receipt showed Ms Truss and her companions enjoyed two bottles of dry gin, three £153 bottles of Pazo Barrantes Albarino, a Spanish white wine, and two bottles of the French red Coudoulet de Beaucastel, at £130 a bottle.
The correspondence, revealed by The Sunday Times, comes as Ms Truss launches a little-disguised campaign to succeed the prime minister, should he be toppled by disillusioned Tory MPs.
The lunch, last June, was condemned by Labour MPs. One, Nia Griffith, tweeted: “Yet again Tory Minister seems to have had scant regard for concerns raised by professional civil servants.”
And Luke Pollard alleged: “One rule for the current PM and those wanting to be the next Tory PM and another for the rest of us.”
Ms Truss was accompanied by nine other people, including the trade representative Katherine Tai, as the UK sought to speed up talks for a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington.
However, President Biden has slammed the brakes on negotiations – and has also refused to lift tariffs on UK steel, even as an agreement was reached with the EU.
Ms 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.
An email shows an official described the club as “obviously incredibly expensive and more than I understand we’d usually expect to pay for such a venue”.
Colleagues proposed “another option – a Soho restaurant called Quo Vadis – which costs only £1,000”, it stated.
The email continued: “However, [the special adviser] refused on behalf of SoS [secretary of state] to consider anywhere else and is insisting that we book 5 Hertford Street and claims SoS would find Quo Vadis inappropriate.”
One official explained the cost would have to be released eventually, but added: “Should this raise any enquiries upon publication I am confident that we can justify the spend as we have to pay immediately to guarantee the discount which represents real VFM [value for money].”
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.”