A wayward sister. Dusty bottles of wine purloined from the cellar to slake the thirst of amorous guests. A prime minister addressing a global crisis while raiding the fridge for snacks in the middle of the night.
No, these are not vignettes of life at Chequers from Boris Johnson’s lockdown diaries — reports this week revealed that police were poring over them during yet another investigation into whether activities at the official prime ministers’ country residence breached restrictions. They feature, instead, in The Diplomat, a Netflix drama that has given viewers an extraordinary view of one of the grace-and-favour houses provided to the most senior members of the British government.
With scenes shot at Chevening, the Georgian mansion reserved for cabinet ministers’ use, the antics of the cast include a naked clinch in the lake as well as woodland walks. Much of the show can’t be taken for diplomatic reality, as the current foreign secretary, James Cleverly, pointed out in a “fact checker” video. A whisky-and-wood-panelling-fuelled flirtation between his onscreen equivalent and the American ambassador, for example, may take the interpretation of “soft power” a bit too far.
Combined with the latest Chequers probe, however, the show has fuelled interest into what precisely goes on in these grand buildings.
Historian Sir Anthony Seldon deplores “too little nous” by politicians in how they exploit these residences for diplomacy. The statesmen of previous eras had their own country houses, he points out; but since David Lloyd George benefited from the bequest of Chequers to the nation in 1917, modern prime ministers have mostly been “a different breed”. They still need a spacious place for “convening” he argues, because the “poky town house” in Downing Street compares badly to the Elysée, the White House or Germany’s Chancellery.
The problem occurs when ministers’ use of such properties comes with “a sense of entitlement, not a sense of their purpose”. In other words, we shouldn’t let the clowns or the grifters anywhere near the gates. This has sometimes proved tricky.
Think of the blurry, long-distance photographs of then deputy prime minister John Prescott at Dorneywood, playing croquet when he was supposed to be in charge while Tony Blair was in Washington. Not much of the “decorum” Seldon calls for was on show. Nor perhaps when then chancellor George Osborne tussled with Nick Clegg over the use of Dorneywood — the deputy premier ended up sharing Chevening’s 115 rooms with William Hague.
Theresa May made Chequers synonymous with her doomed Brexit compromise of July 2018 — but the all-day cabinet meeting to rubber stamp it had terrible visitor reviews. Phones were confiscated and dissenters threatened with minicabs home.
Then came the Johnson era with its plan for a £150,000 bulletproof toddler’s treehouse (never built) and a wedding reception (moved to another location when he resigned).
Some may feel the entire set up has had its day — after all, country house living today is mainly the preserve of cosplaying oligarchs or entertainment luminaries (What ho! Madonna in tweed). But we don’t want those people anywhere near power. And it’s probably smart to show off the nation’s assets, even if those of us without our own grace-and-favour home might resent it.
Seldon has a point — these houses were donated to the nation to improve the effectiveness of our governments. Rishi Sunak, recently welcoming the Ukrainian president to Chequers and hosting a photocall in a room used for Winston Churchill’s wartime addresses, seems to get the idea. “Convening” has value. And it certainly shouldn’t be left to Netflix location scouts.