Liz Truss is embroiled in fresh controversy after a leaked email left her facing questions over why she did not declare thousands of pounds spent on schmoozing Tory MPs in the run up to her bid to succeed Boris Johnson.
Simon Walters www.independent.co.uk
Around a dozen Conservative MPs attended a so-called “Fizz with Liz” champagne dinner hosted by the foreign secretary at Mayfair members club 5 Hertford St last year.
The event was paid for by club owner, multimillionaire aristocrat Robin Birley.
When The Independent asked why Ms Truss has not declared the function – worth an estimated £3,000 – in the Commons register, where MPs are obliged to disclose hospitality worth more than £300, her spokesperson denied she had organised it.
It had “nothing to do with her,” they said. Ms Truss was merely one of a number of Conservative MP guests invited by “organiser and host” Mr Birley, the spokesperson said.
However, this account is disputed by other MPs present who told The Independent that she was the host and not Mr Birley, who “turned up briefly to say hello”.
The invitation sent to MPs suggests the event was organised by Truss’s office
Moreover, they said they were invited by Ms Truss. Their version of events appears to be borne out by a copy of the invitation obtained by this newspaper.
Sent from her Commons email address, it said: “Liz Truss MP is delighted to invite you to attend a dinner at 5 Hertford Street on 26 October at 7.30pm. Most grateful if you could confirm attendance by 10 October. Best wishes, Office of Liz Truss.”
A source close to Boris Johnson told The Independent that he was informed that at the time that Ms Truss had met a group of Tory MPs at 5 Hertford St in October last year and that she appeared to be “on manoeuvres”.
Former cabinet minister David Davis, who is supporting Mr Sunak, said: “We have just lost one prime minister after he broke the rules and couldn’t bring himself to tell the whole truth to the House of Commons. It would be a tragedy if a would-be prime minister did the same before they even got into Downing Street.”
Parliament’s code of conduct says MPs must declare in the Commons register of financial interests any gifts, benefits or hospitality with a value over £300.
This includes “‘any benefits which relate in any way to their membership of the House or political activities… hospitality, including receptions and meals”.
In addition, donations worth more than £1,500 must be declared to the Electoral Commission watchdog.
Declarations to the Commons register and the Electoral Commission must be made within a month.
The “Fizz With Liz” row comes hours after Ms Truss was forced to scrap plans to save up to £11bn per year from civil service pay reforms after claims that it would mean cutting the wages of nurses and teachers.
She said there had been “wilful misrepresentation” of her initiative but critics said she should “stop blaming others” for the muddle.
The 5 Hertford St club is popular with wealthy Tory donors and Brexit backers, showbusiness celebrities and royals.
It is not the first time Ms Truss’s links to the club, where membership costs £2,850 a year, have attracted attention.
She clashed with Foreign Office after insisting on hosting an official £3,000 lunch there last year for a US trade envoy. She spent hundreds of pounds on wine and gin alone, according to a Sunday Times report in January.
She reportedly described suggestions of a cheaper and less party political option as “inappropriate”, said the newspaper. The £1,400 bill was picked up by taxpayers after the Foreign Office negotiated a price cut.
This followed reports in December that 5 Hertford St had become “ground zero for anti-Boris plotters”.
The club was reportedly being used by Ms Truss for “Fizz With Liz” functions to “schmooze MPs and potential financial backers for a leadership bid”.
The Independent has spoken to a number of MPs who attended a dinner they say was hosted by Ms Truss at the club on 26 October.
“Liz was centre of attention, in great form and we discussed all sorts of things,” said one. “We had champagne, cocktails, wine and a lovely three-course meal. Mr Birley turned up briefly to say hello.”
Another MP said: “Liz said it was time to stand up for Conservative values. She didn’t talk about the leadership but we all knew why we were there. She wanted our support.”
Approached by The Independent about the event, Ms Truss’s team changed their account several times.
Initially, her spokesperson said Ms Truss paid for the event personally, which would mean there was nothing to declare.
They later said it was paid for by Mr Birley but said there was no need to declare it.
Ms Truss was merely “an attendee,” a guest of Mr Birley, said her spokesperson, and the value of her dinner was “below the £300 threshold for Commons declarations”.
The spokesperson was adamant that the event had “nothing to do with her”. “It was not organised for her, on her behalf or by her. She was invited by Robin Birley with loads of MPs. It was put on by Mr Birley to discuss low tax and deregulation.”
Asked to explain the email from her Commons office inviting MPs to the event the spokesperson said later: “I am aware of the email but it was not her event. We are sticking with the line. We have had very clear advice
“A declaration would only need to be made if there was a benefit to Liz, or it was above the threshold for individual declarations for MPs’ register of interests. Liz was one of a number of MPs in attendance.”
Mr Birley, who donated £20,000 to Boris Johnson in 2019, and who is a half brother of environment minister Zac Goldsmith, said last September that he had lost faith in the government. Mr Birley told The Times: “I do not see this government as particularly pro business. I am terribly depressed about the situation.”
Despite recent gaffes, Ms Truss remains the strong favourite to defeat Mr Sunak in the Tory leadership contest. The latest YouGov poll put her 34 points ahead among Conservative members.