Those Conway boys: Brothers at the heart of a scandal
The row about Derek Conway's expenses has shocked Westminster. Scarcely less colourful, however, is what it reveals about the lifestyles of his two sons. Jonathan Brown investigates
Thursday 31 January 2008
They are, their critics say, the brothers who love to party. Two privileged young men who, the pockets of their designer trousers stuffed with some £80,000 of taxpayers' money, have spent much of the past decade frittering their time away in a dizzying round of nightclubs, foreign travel and wealthy friends.
The indefinite suspension of Derek Conway from the ranks of the parliamentary Conservative Party this week has not just damaged the credibility of David Cameron and sent a frisson of terror through MPs fearful over the future of their generous allowances, but has shone an unwelcome light on the gilded lives of Henry and Freddie Conway.
The pair have for the past seven years been working, or at least being paid as research assistants, for their father, the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup. The elder, Henry, 25, pocketed £32,717 during his tenure in the post between 2001 and 2004, a period which saw his £28,000 salary augmented with thousands of pounds worth of bonuses and even £829 overtime. His younger brother, Freddie, picked up a cool £50,000 during his stint in House of Commons employment, an arrangement which ceased in August last year. However, according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Freddie was in fact studying for a geography degree at the University of Newcastle at the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for someone living – and, it is claimed, partying – 300 miles away, he was all but "invisible" at the Palace of Westminster.
Following publication of the anti-sleaze watchdog's damning report, it also emerged that Henry had been on his father's payroll while he was studying at the University of Cambridge, despite the strict rules on students there taking outside employment. Along with the MP's wife, Colette, who is employed legitimately as his secretary, the nuclear family has added an extra £260,000 to the MP's already generous salary and expenses package.
Yet it is not just the fact that they have been paid that has outraged the public so much, but the lifestyles of the two men for so long living off the public purse.
Take Henry Conway: a man with a penchant for £500 jackets who likes to style himself "blond, bouncy and one for the boys". The days leading up to the revelations of his father's expenses claims were, for him at least, pretty much routine. His Facebook diary describes him "hotting it up cowboy style" at Prince Harry's favourite watering hole, Mahiki, on the Thursday before the story broke. A day later he was "strutting out la disco" at Maya in Soho. By the weekend he was in the "recovery position" but by Monday was once more "looking hot".
Later that day, as journalists began sniffing around the story, he was busy editing the work details on his personal profile. Twenty-four hours on, his mobile phone was off and he was removing yet more information about his interests and personal life from the internet.
Not that Henry Conway is exactly unknown. Friends described him yesterday as the "best-connected and most talked about man in London". Like his younger brother, he was educated at the elite £25,000-a-year Harrow School, which likes to boast to parents that it prepares its young charges for a "life of leadership, service and fulfilment".
Henry excelled academically. Going up to Cambridge he continued to mingle with the kind of rich, influential people who were to form the nucleus of his London set a few years later. Here he developed a reputation as a dandy, always flamboyantly dressed, the proud owner of a thick mane of wavy blond hair – and for being openly gay.
After graduation, he studied at the Courtauld Institute, providing a springboard into a future career as a part-time fashion writer and co-author of Knit Couture, a serious-minded tome charting the development of knitting from its roots in the Middle East to the fashion giants of the 20th century.
The guest list for the launch of the book, in the august surroundings of The Georgian Group in Fitzroy Square, perfectly illustrated the strange world of politics, fashion and celebrity that the Conways were now inhabiting.
The invitation, circulated to a select group of journalists in November last year, promised such luminaries among the "confirmed attendees" as the former EastEnder Martine McCutcheon, Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding, and a triumvirate of leading Tories – David Davis, Alan Duncan and of course Derek Conway. The cocktails for the evening's festivities were provided by Mahiki, where the would-be author hosts a popular soirée each week.
The Mayfair club, the ersatz-Polynesian watering hole for west London's leading battalions of wannabe royal hangers-on and modern-day Sloane Rangers, has been at the centre of the Conway social whirl for some time. Even the sleaze revelations will not interrupt the Thursday ritual of the club nights that Henry Conway promotes there.
In an email, dispatched yesterday to the 800 or so people the MP's eldest son counts among his closest pals – a list that includes the likes of Kate Middleton, Zafar Rushdie and Isabella Hervey – he thanked friends for the "many messages of support during this stormy weather".
He went on: "It means so much that so many friends have been so kind. Contrary to reports, I will be doing Mahiki this week ... I will be storming forth in my usual skinnies and boots, and of course good hair."
According to one recipient, Henry Conway is an unstoppable social force. "He is an impeccable host. If a friend comes into a club he will make sure they have a table and someone interesting to talk to. If you want a crowd of young, rich people in your club, willing to pay £100 a drink, who can create a bit of a glamorous atmosphere, then he is your man."
Friends insist, however, that far from being the kind of vacuous socialite currently being portrayed in the media, Conway is an altogether more serious and sober character. He eschews drugs, drinks only moderately and has worked hard to gain a foothold in the demanding world of fashion. And despite organising one bash reportedly entitled "Fuck Off I'm Rich" he is also avowedly not a snob.
"I cannot think of anyone who has a bad word to say about him," said one close pal yesterday, insisting that his friend was at home with people of all classes, races, genders and ages. "He puts everyone at their ease and is simply one of those people who you want to have at a party, because his presence guarantees that everyone meets everyone else."
Freddie Conway, though close to his brother and equally no stranger to the high life, inhabits a different social circle. Dark – and described in one admiring newspaper yesterday as "dashingly handsome" – he too attended Harrow and enjoyed the opportunities it afforded, rising to become a popular head of house.
But rather than Cambridge, the younger boy travelled north to Tyne and Wear where his father had grown up poor on a council estate and where he started his career as an outspoken Conservative councillor on the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead. There, before securing the seat of Shrewsbury and Atcham and later that of former prime minister Ted Heath, Derek Conway contested several unsuccessful parliamentary seats and made his first appearance on the front of a national newspaper when it was claimed he ruthlessly ditched a fiancée he felt was unsuited to the eventual scale of his political ambitions.
Here in the Labour heartlands, his younger son set about developing proletarian tastes of his own. His Bebo site revealed a hitherto unknown taste for John Smith's bitter, and he complained that his digs were more "crack den" than student house.
Yet for all the foreign travel (Freddie boasted of trips to Morocco and Thailand on his internet site) and the champagne celebration on the terrace of the House of Commons to mark his 21st birthday, Freddie's life, like Henry's, has not consisted only of frivolity and luxury. Both boys spent most of their lives growing up in the family's relatively modest home in Sidcup, Kent. Now Freddie, a former head of the combined cadet force at Harrow, is preparing to embark on a full military career studying at the Sandhurst military academy.
The payroll revelations have proved deeply damaging for the head of the Conway family. Derek Conway said yesterday he would be standing down at the next election, an ignoble end to a parliamentary career spanning 25 years. The coverage has drawn in his wife, and his daughter, Claudia, despite her never having appeared on the Westminster payroll.
While the Army will no doubt shield the young soldier Freddie from the glare of the media spotlight until the story blows over, his brother Henry, with his wide coterie of glamorous friends, is more exposed to the dangers of a media circus.
According to one friend yesterday, some newspapers had long been waiting to "put the boot" into the young socialite. They were, however, confident that he would ride out the storm, emerging if anything, stronger and more popular. "He has a very strong character and a terrifically sunny disposition," said the friend. "He will deal with this as he would with any setback, with courage and fortitude."
The camp one
Henry Conway. Age: 25. Occupation: fashion writer; organiser of nightclub theme nights. Earned £32,717.32 as his father's research assistant from 2001 to 2004. Held a 'Fuck Off, I'm Rich' party
The quiet one
Freddie Conway. Age: 22. Occupation: student. Earned £50,068.96 as his father's research assistant between 2004 and 2008. Held a 'crazy' 21st birthday party on the House of Commons terrace
The Conway set
The brothers' favourite nightclub is reported to be Mahiki, favoured haunt of Prince Harry and Kate Middleton – and famous for its £100-a-shot Pieces of Eight cocktails. Their exclusive circle includes such socialites as Lady Isabella Hervey, Loulou Kahrmann and Zafar Rushdie
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