openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Elite private members’ clubs are at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government

The Conservatives’ use of exclusive clubs – like the Carlton Club – is a throwback to an earlier Toryism

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
19 January 2022, 12.01am
In Boris Johnson’s government, private clubs play an increasingly important role in political life
SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

Perhaps it is rather apt for Boris Johnson that a downfall that began with a house party may end at a private members’ club.

By Tuesday night, social media was awash with stories and speculation of rebellion at London’s prestigious Carlton Club, as Conservative MPs reportedly gathered to discuss removing Johnson from office.

In one room, The Daily Telegraph reported, ambitious Tory MP William Wragg was holding court with more than 100 fellow rebels. In another room upstairs, culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a staunch Johnson supporter, was giving a speech to the Tories’ Onward group.

None of this is new for the Conservatives – a party whose history is interwoven with the fabric of London’s exclusive clubs, and which itself grew out of them. The party’s leadership crises often involve emergency meetings in clubs – most famously in the Carlton Club meeting nearly a century ago, in October 1922.

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London’s elite clubs combine so much of what Boris Johnson holds dearest: secrecy, luxury and networking with a small circle of old chums – while keeping outsiders firmly at bay. And as long as the Conservative Party has existed, these clubs have been a key part of its world.

Indeed, before there was an official party organisation, the Carlton Club, which provided office space, sourced candidates and provided a discreet network for private fundraising. Nearly two centuries later, the Carlton still exists – and its ‘Political Committee’ is still one of the largest donors to the Tories.

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In the shadows

For politicians, the greatest appeal of clubs is discretion. Sometimes this could be perfectly legitimate, dealing with confidential issues without interruption. But that secrecy also has other uses. The Carlton hosts its own secretive in-house fundraiser dinners, alongside other fundraising groups. The shadowy United and Cecil Club – which uses a legal loophole to allow donors to remain anonymous – has often fundraised at the Carlton.

Two centuries ago, about one in ten MPs, such as Benjamin Disraeli, used to lie about their clubs – claiming to belong to clubs where they weren’t members to sound more important.

Today, the opposite is true. Plenty of MPs still belong to an exclusive club – sometimes several – but they keep quiet about it, often omitting it from guides like ‘Who’s Who’.

David Cameron seemed particularly embarrassed by his clubs. He made a point of publicly turning down honorary life membership at the Carlton, which is normally given to all Tory leaders, apparently in protest at their ban on women members, which was still in place at the time.

But what he didn’t mention was that he was already a member of White’s, the oldest club in London – which is men-only. His father had even been chairman. Eventually, after embarrassing newspaper coverage, Cameron resigned from White’s in 2008. But since stepping down as prime minister in 2016, he has discreetly re-joined..

Johnson, whose Downing Street partying is currently being investigated, was recently pictured at one of London’s most exclusive private members’ clubs, Oswald’s – which is owned by a Conservative Party donor.

Oswald’s is known as a hangout for the rich and famous, hosting celebrities from David Beckham to Amber Heard. But it is also a magnet for senior Tory politicians, including Priti Patel, Michael Gove and George Osborne.

It is easy to overlook the significance of these private clubs. In fact, during last week’s visit, tabloid newspapers seemed more interested in what Carrie Johnson was wearing. But these elite havens have often played a hidden role at the heart of British politics.

Just this month we learned how the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, insisted that a taxpayer-funded lunch should take place at what one civil servant described as an “incredibly expensive” club owned by a Conservative donor. The same man also owns Oswald’s in Mayfair.

Last year’s scandal over former minister Owen Paterson – and the government’s attempt to tear up the rulebook on MPs’ standards – also had its roots in a private club. Reports say a mutual friend had a quiet word with Johnson over dinner at the Garrick Club.

Resurgence of clubs?

Four years ago, I wrote that clubs in politics had become “a venue for hire, nothing more, nothing less”. But now, clubs are playing an increasingly important role in political life.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how the company would tap into the worldwide network in which private clubs operate, offering complete privacy in reciprocal clubs around the world. The practice is common, from arms dealers and mercenaries to insurance salesmen. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, even planned to host a business dinner at the Carlton for Steve Bannon.

Then, when Boris Johnson was elected as Conservative Party leader, the contest resembled a battle of clubs. Candidates were Michael Gove (Garrick Club); Sajid Javid (Carlton); Boris Johnson (Beefsteak Club, Carlton, 5 Hertford Street); and the ultra-establishment Rory Stewart (Athenaeum, Beefsteak, Special Forces Club, Travellers Club); as well as Jeremy Hunt, who doesn’t declare membership any club memberships.

The trendy new clubs favoured by Johnson, Truss, and their Tory colleagues are a modern breed of the Victorian clubs, which were often owned by their members and worked like co-operatives. Instead of profit-sharing among the members, the incentive is to squeeze the members and their guests with often-inflated prices. There are dozens in London – Home House, Soho House, 12 Hay Hill, 67 Pall Mall, Fitzdares, to name but a few – with new ones opening all the time.

Robin Birley, who owns clubs including 5 Hertford Street and Oswald’s, is a good example of the small, almost incestuous world of these landlords. Himself the son of a club impresario, Birley is the half-brother of Johnson’s close friend, Zac Goldsmith.

He is also a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation, which employs Carrie Johnson as a press officer. And over the years he has donated to both Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign and to UKIP. Meanwhile, another private members’ club, Annabel’s, is named after Birley’s mother.

Being newer, these modern clubs are also more anonymous. Unlike the older clubs, there are no guidebooks listing their addresses, no published maps, and no brass plaques with the name outside.

At their best, clubs allow like-minded people to get together, as they would in a pub. But at their worst, they can be insular magnets for fantasists, plutocrats, oddballs, and corrupt business people.

Since the deeply ‘clubbable’ Conservative governments of the early 1960s were brought down after sleaze scandals, governments of all parties have been reluctant to be tied too closely to these establishments. As with so much of Johnson’s government, ministers’ reliance on clubs feels like a throwback to an earlier kind of Toryism.

But in the 19th century, when clubs were at their most powerful, the phrase ‘club government’ emerged as a term of abuse, to describe secretive and manipulative deals done in back rooms. Johnson may be about to discover why.

Seth Thévoz is librarian of the National Liberal Club, and author of 'Club Government'. His new book on clubs, 'Behind Closed Doors', is published by Robinson in July.

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