Inside a £500-a-head Tory donor lunch with Boris Johnson, where the wine was ‘rubbish’ and he joked about emulating Saudi Arabia’s justice system

Boris Johnson at CLWCA lunch
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his speech at the CLWCA 2021 lunch Rebeca Riofrio
  • Johnson attended a Conservative Party fundraiser on Sept. 10, the largest since the pandemic began.
  • Insider spoke to an attendee who provided an insight into the PM’s behaviour behind closed doors.
  • At one point, he joked about the UK becoming the “Saudi Arabia of penal policy” under Priti Patel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Boris Johnson was, as usual, running late.

He had just been at Downing Street to speak to the president of Chile, but more important business on the afternoon of September 10 was in the largest conference room at the InterContinental London Park Lane in Mayfair.

Message from Patrick Evershed at Conservative Lunch
Introductory message from Patrick Evershed Rebeca Riofrio

Johnson was the guest of honour at the first large Conservative Party fundraiser event since the pandemic began.

With tickets costing up to £500, and three hundred attendees, the lunch was a major opportunity to raise funds for the Cities Of London & Westminster Conservative Association, whose constituency covers Theatreland in the West End, the Houses of Parliament, and the commercial centre of the City of London.

The “substantial sum of money” raised was not just for the association’s work in the constituency, but also for Conservative Campaign Headquarters and other groups, according to the event’s brochure.

Insider spoke to an attendee at the lunch, who shared her experience of what it is like to attend the event, as well as photographs and video, including of incendiary remarks made by Johnson behind closed doors.

Rebeca Riofrio is the chair of the Parliamentary Society for Arts, Fashion & Sports, which has no formal link to the UK Parliament but seeks to develop links between those industries and the British government. She spoke to Insider three days after attending the lunch.

On Johnson’s arrival: “It was a lot of people, but still people were respecting social distancing. But at the moment Boris arrived, everybody wanted to be next to him. And it was quite pathetic,” she told Insider.

The guest of honour

Johnson went on to deliver his speech to the attendees, starting with a joke about Home Secretary Priti Patel. Insider obtained footage of part of the speech, which you can watch below.

Patel’s future in her role had been the subject of doubt amid rumours of a possible reshuffle earlier that week.

She had been heavily criticised for a string of hardline policy announcements on immigration – such as installing giant wave machines in the English Channel to discourage migrants crossing in boats from France – albeit much of it to little actual effect, The Guardian reported.

“In the immortal words of Priti Patel or Michael Howard or some other hardline home secretary, addressing the inmates of one of our larger prisons: It’s fantastic to see so many of you here,” Johnson told the lunch, as can be seen around the 20-second mark in the video above.

“I mean it! This is the first time, the first time in 18 months, I’ve been able to come to an event like this,” he said, before going to explain how thanks to the work of his government, restrictions had been lifted allowing for such social events.

“And who invented that vaccine, my friends? Was it produced in the laboratories of the Department of Health and Social Care? Was it Public Health England? Was it the NHS? No! No it wasn’t. No, it was the private sector, it was big pharma, it was the UK pharmaceuticals industry,” he said to applause and cheers.

“We are basically, fundamentally, the party of enterprise and wealth creation. And I salute the City of London, incarnated here, and I always stick up for the wonderful bankers. Any bankers here?”

No bankers made themselves known, to laughter around the room.

“You’re looking at the only politician who stood up for you in 2008,” Johnson continued, before going to speak about the role of capital in fulfilling his “levelling up” agenda, the work of the government in fighting crime, and boasting about a fall in crime statistics, “partly because we took the precaution of locking up the entire population, including the criminals.”

But Johnson’s most startling remark behind closed doors came in a tangent about renewable energy.

“I said last year we’re the Saudi Arabia of wind. Probably the Saudi Arabia of penal policy, under our wonderful Home Secretary,” he jokes, to laughter from the audience. This can be seen around 5 minutes and 30 seconds in the video above.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most punitive regimes, and is one of the few countries in the world to still carry out capital punishment via beheading. It has been accused of torturing activists, and it gives the death penalty for homosexuality and many drug offences.

Patel has previously indicated her support for the death penalty as a “deterrent,” though she has since suggested she is not an “active supporter” of the policy, the Independent reported.

Downing Street did not respond to Insider’s multiple requests for comment on Johnson’s remark. In January, when Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio reported on Johnson’s making a similar joke to a call with 250 business bosses, Downing Street called it “total bollocks.”

‘Flowing but rubbish’

But the event was more than just listening to Johnson speak. At tables of eight, attendees had the chance to mingle over their meals.

With attendees paying up to £500 for the three-course meal, expectations for quality are set understandably high.

Paying more doesn’t affect what you’re served, but it does affect where you’re served: More expensive tickets place you closer to where Johnson delivered his speech.

Order of Events at Conservative Lunch
Starters and mains from the lunch brochure Rebeca Riofrio

The starters were cured smoked salmon or charred asparagus, followed by mains of a beef fillet with potato gratin, or a vegetarian option of a wild mushroom, celeriac, and chestnut Wellington. Dessert was summer pudding. There was no cheese course.

As for the wine? It was “flowing but rubbish. Very very low-class drinks,” Riofrio told Insider. “Sorry, I’m a bit of a snob with drinks. Really bitter, very bad wine.”

“And a £500 lunch, usually, you expect better wine, don’t you think?”

The wine was Volpi Cortese Amonte Piemonte 2019 and Volpi Barbera Amonte Piemonte 2019. An Insider review of wine retailers suggest both bottles retail at under £10.

The event closed out with a toast to Her Majesty’s Government, according to the lunch brochure.

As for other high-profile political guests, Riofrio said she spoke with Nickie Aiken, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, as well as Shaun Bailey, the unsuccessful Conservative candidate in the 2021 mayoral election.

Shaun Bailey and Rebeca Riofrio
Shaun Bailey AM, former Conservative London mayoral candidate, and . Rebeca Riofrio

Riofrio said she approached them to discuss a proposal for music education in state schools.

Bailey, she said, was “super helpful” and put her in contact with people thanks to his background in working with youth.