When the history books on Brexit are written, the index will be bursting with references to Parliament and Downing Street.
But there is one other address that deserves a significant mention: 5 Hertford Street. The exterior of this private members’ club, down one of the alleys in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market, has an anonymous red frontage. If there is a nameplate, I’ve never seen it, as the doorman is so quick to usher you in. This man in gloves has, over the past few months, swung open that door for Michael Gove, Carrie Symonds and Arron Banks. He may also have been the one to nod through Prince Harry on his date with an American actress called Meghan Markle.
One hopes they didn’t talk Brexit then, but the subject is hard to avoid in the club now. 5 Hertford Street has become ‘a very politically charged place’, one member, a keen observer of politics, tells me, especially in the run-up to the election. Another regular at the club — and notable wit — put it more crudely: ‘It is the Brexit sex dungeon.’
Followers of the twists and turns of current politics will spot that the club’s name keeps cropping up; it was here, as Boris Johnson vied for the Conservative leadership, that Priti Patel found herself in a meeting with Nigel Farage to discuss a possible Brexit pact in June. The encounter was ‘accidental’, as many are in the club, but apparently they found ‘common ground’. It is also where Gove and David Cameron met this summer — again in what seemed like just a fortuitous meeting. The drawing room was cleared so that the two could sit down with red wine and whisky sodas to make their peace after falling out in the wake of the referendum vote.
Banks, co-founder of Leave.EU, spreads his bonhomie at the club — he and Farage are often in. Some of the members — drawn from old and new money, politics and business — regard the Brexit Party arrivistes with disdain. ‘Yeah, we aren’t all entirely happy about Arron being a member,’ one tells me. ‘It is fair to say it has caused some tensions.’ Robin Birley, the owner of 5 Hertford Street, will enjoy this, says the keen observer. ‘He loves the drama of it all.’
What sets this club apart from others where politicos gather, such as the Carlton Club — the original home of the Conservative Party down the road in St James’s — is the staging. Glamour rubs up against power. Loulou’s, the club in the basement, is opulent, cavernous and hums with beautiful people: Adwoa Aboah, Cara Delevingne and Colin Firth do the A-list catwalk on their way in, with a vulture pack of photographers hovering. Brooklyn Beckham has loped in, as has Brazilian football star Neymar. And the young royals, who’ve matured beyond drunken Chelsea club nights out, turn up too: the Cambridges and Princess Beatrice (her father Prince Andrew, too, but let’s gloss over that).
Upstairs, the labyrinthine townhouse is designed as though an English chatelaine has over-indulged her love of exotic prints; a heavily furnished country house-meets-empire chic, befitting of Brexit politics, brought to life by designer Rifat Ozbek. Downstairs in Loulou’s there’s a stuffed giraffe. The club’s culture runs on old-fashioned discretion, with an eye on ambition. Ask a member about who’s been in recently and they will give the smirk of an insider who knows something but won’t tell. The soft carpets and impeccably polite waiters absorb the comings and goings. But really, everyone’s glancing to see who is coming through the door next.
Politicians are ushered into membership by Birley, a committed Leaver. One might think he has been lucky in his choice of political friends. One might take the view that he has played it skilfully. He had written frequent cheques to Ukip, totalling over £250,000, when Farage was leader and the party was jostling for position. There were smaller dollops of money donations in kind to Zac Goldsmith, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, listed in the MPs’ Register of Financial Interest over recent years, all around £1,500 and incidentally roughly the annual cost of a Hertford Street membership.
Birley then signalled a full return to the Tory fold with £20,000 for Johnson’s leadership bid. Boris was now officially in the Birley club. I met him at Hertford Street at a drinks party about 18 months ago where he was guest of honour at a fundraising dinner for the campaign against FGM, and he looked right at home. But it’s not just for politicians. 5 Hertford Street is conveniently located for the hedge-funders of Mayfair, who enjoy both the volatility of Brexit and the vim of Boris.
One person you won’t find here is Jeremy Corbyn — he’s more likely to be outside protesting about the wages of the Hertford Street kitchen porters, a cause célèbre for the unions this summer, and now resolved with a rise to the living wage in 2020.
‘Is this all a big, secret cabal? No. Everyone will think there’s some great conspiracy,’ says the observant Hertford Streetologist, who knows that putting money and exclusivity together triggers the green-ink brigade on Twitter. ‘But it is more that Robin spotted the future. He was never just a club host, he is a player himself.’
His father, Mark, set up the famed society club Annabel’s in Berkeley Square in 1963. It was named after his wife Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, who subsequently married Eurosceptic businessman Sir James Goldsmith — who founded the Referendum Party to get us out of the EU in 1994. Too much, too soon. In the 1997 election it received only 800,000 votes and disbanded soon after. Birley was its operations director and stood as the candidate, describing his stepfather as his ‘hero’. The other Eurosceptic party, Ukip, began to pick up steam and, by 2013, the centrist Conservatives, under pressure from the Right wing, gave Sir James his wish, posthumously.
And here we are now. Lady Annabel’s son Zac, who runs his social life in the club, is part of Johnson’s inner circle and his brother Ben, a financier, is one of the club’s directors. Birley has provided not just capital but also a home for the revolution that has gone on in the Conservative Party.
There will be something bittersweet in this for Birley. He was effectively disinherited by his father Mark who, during a family feud, sold Annabel’s and three other clubs — Mark’s, George and Harry’s Bar — to restaurateur Richard Caring in 2007 and cut him out of his will. Caring donated heavily to Cameron’s Tories and called the referendum result ‘absurd’. He gave Cameron honorary membership to Mark’s and the then-PM had a celebratory dinner there to mark the 2015 election victory.
Meanwhile, Hertford Street was hosting meetings for a disintegrating Ukip, out of which Leave.EU and the Brexit Party would be formed. From the jaws of defeat came victory. Birley has, through a mixture of will and polite charm, found himself on the winner’s side of history. Or at least this chapter, depending on the election result.
While Loulou’s is rarely out of the celebrity pages, those flashbulbs are a distraction. 5 Hertford Street is more than just a society club. Surpassing Annabel’s, it is also ‘the new smoking room of Downing Street’, according to my observant member friend. To think the will of the people will be brought about over a gin fizz and a cigar.