In the decade since it opened its red doors, many an expensive column inch has been splurged on the visual appearance of 5 Hertford Street—surely the most clubbable of all clubs in London’s buoyant clubland. Starved for any real gossip, owing to the Mayfair den’s extreme discretion, hacks across the capital have long put heavy emphasis on how the place looks instead—on its clashing, maximalist chintz, say, or its elaborate shell bar, or its procession of giant stuffed animals, or its cavalcade of red-nosed wedding dancers, or the surgical uplifts of their newly minted wives.
Far more interesting, though, is how 5 Hertford Street sounds—or, more precisely, how it doesn’t. Because the key to understanding the enduring power of this unique British institution is to understand its enduring, absorbing quietness too. The carpet is spread thick, like foie gras on Melba toast. The sofas are deep enough to swallow a Pomeranian, should anyone dare to bring one in. (Like all great country houses—and 5 Hertford Street is nothing if not a country house dropped into the middle of Mayfair—it likes its dogs big and proper; founder Robin Birley favors a blue whippet.)
The heavy curtains are commissioned by the acre, the silken Rifat Ozbek cushions are legion, and even the roaring fires provide a toasty blanket of white noise. This is a sound booth upholstered in taffeta and toile, an enveloping womb with added duchesses, a gin-and-sonic vacuum. Put simply: in 5 Hertford Street, no one can hear you scheme.
Which may help to explain why the club—whose patrician patrons have always rather assumed they were above politics—has found itself at the center of so much Machiavellian maneuvering of late. When the general public insists on owning camera phones, and even Downing Street is as leaky as a colander (a colander, for any Hertford Street members reading, is that clever thing the cook uses to drain the asparagus), where else do you turn to but the bosomy embrace of this most private of private clubs?
Just ask Liz Truss. When the foreign secretary isn’t popping her head out of the hatch of a tank—think Maggie Thatcher with a TikTok consultant—she’s organizing cozy little get-togethers at 5 Hertford Street to lay the ground, perhaps, for a friendly coup. Truss’s “fizz with Liz” meetings are bottle-popping affairs that hope to woo Tory M.P.’s to her cause, should Downing Street become, for whatever reason, suddenly very vacant. The minister’s “biz for Liz” bashes, on the other hand, are love-ins with Tory grandees and financial potentates, just in case a campaign war chest is ever required. (Truss is known to request Abba hits from the D.J.—just picture the gyrating billionaires.)
In 5 Hertford Street, no one can hear you scheme.
Back in the summer of 2021, Truss demanded to take President Biden’s trade representative to Hertford Street for a Pol Rogering of their own—despite warnings from Whitehall mandarins that a sloshy $4,000 taxpayer-funded lunch at one of London’s most exclusive clubs might not be such a good look at a moment of unique economic anxiety.
Truss overruled them. And e-mails leaked earlier this month show that the minister “refused to consider anywhere else” for the occasion. (Not even Quo Vadis over in Soho—Soho! Imagine!—which was suggested as it “cost only £1,000 [$1,350].”) In the end, Hertford Street agreed to slash the price of the lunch to a mere $2,000—but only on pain of immediate payment, which meant civil servants had to trigger an emergency process to rustle up the cash. (According to The Sunday Times, the party ordered two measures of dry gin, three bottles of Pazo Barrantes Albariño, a brace of decent Coudoulet de Beaucastel—and hopefully some solids too.)
It gets worse for Boris Johnson, however. In December, the Daily Mail noted that Nigel Farage—former U.K. Independence Party (U.K.I.P.) front man and Brexit’s goutiest cheerleader—was being wined and dined at 5 Hertford Street by hardline conservatives disillusioned with Johnson’s tax-heavy, tree-hugging agenda. (On the exact same night, as it happens, Prince William and ex-Tory chosen one David Cameron were spotted at the club, too—ticking off an entire row in Chinless Establishment Bingo.)
Farage’s presence indicates just how far the political pendulum at Hertford Street has swung of late. Birley was a longtime U.K.I.P. donor (the further-right party that once nipped at Tory heels), but switched his allegiances to team Boris via a $27,000 check ahead of the prime minister’s successful election in 2019. But in September of last year, after an unexpected tax hike, Birley told The Sunday Times that he would “definitely not” give money to the Conservatives again, adding that he was “terribly depressed about the whole situation.” And though Birley professes to remain an “ardent” fan of Johnson’s, the prime minister is now a de facto pariah in the club that helped make him.
Despite warnings from Whitehall mandarins that a sloshy $4,000 taxpayer-funded lunch at one of London’s most exclusive clubs might not be such a good look.
Bad for Boris; catastrophic for Carrie. The “First Lady” is said to be so fond of 5 Hertford Street that she may very well have based the interiors of her dubiously funded Downing Street apartment on the club’s decadent feel. (Far smarter, thank God, than the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” left behind by the outgoing Theresa May.) Worse still, many in Carrie’s intimate circle are Hertford Street heavy hitters—most notably Lord Zac Goldsmith, whom Boris made a life peer in 2019 and who is Birley’s half-brother; Ben Elliot, a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, who is said to have been closely involved in the controversial flat renovation; and Damian Aspinall, Carrie’s boss at the Aspinall Foundation, a wildlife charity for which she does P.R.
(Now there’s a family that knows a thing or two about political maneuvering. Damian’s father, John “Aspers” Aspinall, was the wily founder of the Clermont Club, a fabled 1970s gambling den in which a black-tie brain trust once allegedly plotted a military coup—apparently backed by billionaire members such as Sir Jimmy Goldsmith (yes, father to Zac)—and readied themselves to strike should the Labour government plunge Britain into anarchy. Perhaps that’s what Truss was doing in that tank. These same Clermont Club members were a central part of the Lord Lucan murder mystery and disappearance. Furthermore, it was at Aspinall’s wildlife park that a young Birley was mauled by a tiger.
Unable or unwilling to chance it among the chintz, however, the prime minister and his wife have now started hanging out at Oswald’s instead, just round the corner on Albemarle Street. It’s another Birley joint, perhaps best described as Hertford Street’s smarter, quaffier older brother. The house champagne is Krug, and members can stash their best beloved bottles in private cellars down below, ready to be whipped out should an errant prince or plutocrat need a schmoozing. (A Bring Your Own Booze policy which, for once, won’t land anyone in the soup.)
But even here the vipers are never far away. Truss herself was spotted at Oswald’s in the same week as the Johnsons, alongside rising star Nadhim Zahawi, the current secretary of state for education and an outside contender for the top spot. The ground floor at Oswald’s, meanwhile, is said to be modeled on the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, that bastion of pampered, fragile privilege. For the beleaguered Boris, whose head so many would like to see on a plate, the parallels may be a little too close for comfort.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London