'Enron II': There's no such thing as a free banquet

A dinner in the downfall of Global Crossing
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Indy Politics

How do you catch the ear of a government minister? Ask him or her out to dinner with a few friends. You might need to hire Claridge's, put on a lavish spread in a room glittering with gold, silver and cut glass, and cram it with people of privilege, influence, or – best of all – wealth. The scent of money is what the stars of British politics find hardest to resist, as the US telecoms company Global Crossing knew only too well in its glory days.

On 10 November 2000 it gathered a fortunate 300 under the crystal chandeliers in Mayfair at an event seen as one of the swankiest in the London diary. Lord Wakeham was there with 14 other peers; Sir David Frost attended with 20 other knights; Prince Michael of Kent and the Bishop of London represented crown and mitre.

A formidable 75-year-old lady in a blue gown held court in one corner, as members of the Thatcher cabinet were reunited with their heroine a decade after her fall.

Global Crossing was worth $50bn at the time, but last week it followed Enron into bankruptcy, with debts of $12.4bn. The company was only three years old when this extraordinary gathering took place, so where did its pulling power come from?

The ability to spend, for a start. Claridge's mid-price menu in the airy ballroom costs £72 a head and starts with crown of asparagus with avocado and sweet pepper oil. Roast sea scallops follow, then tournedos of Aberdeen Angus. Dessert is spiced roast pineapple soup with coconut mousse, followed by coffee and petits fours. With champagne, wine and spirits, you can easily run up a bill of £60,000.

The speaker in 2000 was supposed to be Henry Kissinger, but he was recovering from a heart attack. Philip Lader, the outgoing US ambassador to Britain, agreed to stand in. Mr Lader was witty, but even he could not eclipse Baroness Thatcher. Michael Howard was by her side. Fellow former ministers Virginia Bottomley, Sir Norman Fowler and John Gummer stood by. Michael Portillo worked the room, unaware that all his hopes of the Tory crown would be in vain.

The most glamorous Labour creature on show was Peter Mandelson, still Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But the ear most worth bending was that of Anji Hunter, the Prime Minister's assistant. She later left Downing Street for a well-paid job with BP.

The hosts were Gary Winnick and Lodwrick Cook, chairman and co-chairman of Global Crossing. Winnick founded the company in 1997 as a hugely ambitious attempt to combine telecoms and internet technology by laying an undersea cable from Land's End to New York.

Global Crossing needed access to people of influence, so Lod Cook arranged to take over an annual dinner that had been run since the Seventies by his old firm, the oil company Atlantic Richfield. It was an audacious move that paid off immediately, by announcing to the City and Westminster that Global Crossing meant to be a serious player. Chutzpah like that had enabled Winnick to raise $20bn of capital staggeringly quickly.

"The dinner existed for the greater glorification of Global Crossing," recalled a guest last week. "And wealthy Americans got to meet Baroness Thatcher, a lady they worship."

Only the scale of the event was unusual, however. There will never be a shortage of companies willing to pick up the tab for a ministerial night out. The question will always be what they get in return.