That’s the problem with Checkers: it makes you forget you might have work to do | Catherine bennett
Bbefore becoming the privileged companion of now disgraced financier Lex Greensill, David Cameron devoted part of his autobiography to justifying Checkers, the first among the government’s collection of country houses. “All I can say is that it makes the job more doable and frees the Prime Minister from the daily fray so he can think or plan.”
It’s amazing, we learn, what a fully equipped mansion with swimming pool and tennis court – in the case of Chevening House, a maze and a lake – can do to remind a minister of a calling that could easily, within the confines of Downing Street or of a family or constituency home, escape him. In fact, there could hardly be a greater homage to the foresight of Sir Arthur Lee, who gave Checkers to the nation, than Cameron’s confirmation that the place sometimes reminded him of “the higher purpose of politics.” .
No wonder Boris Johnson, a man hardly less passionate than Prince Andrew about closed bolt holes, grace and favor, wanted mark the centenary from Lee’s 1917 gift becoming an official residence with a party this weekend. Sadly, Cameron, along with fellow beneficiaries Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major, were unable to join the Johnsons, who added track bike walks to proposed quarantine allegators. But his briefs are clear on the value of country pensions, regardless of the high cost of upkeep (Â£ 1million a year) and, presumably, the kind of cabinet discontent that now plagues Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, who both want Chevening.
âIt helped me forget,â Cameron explained, âall the gossip and intrigue and firefighting in Westminster and think about the big picture, look to the longer term and think seriously about the big decisions I was making. “
Cameron wasn’t the first to discover that a flood of visitors, some prominent, far less, only made Lee’s better. “house of peace”, Cameron was not the first to find it. Years ago, the Blairs hosted, among others, Chris Evans and Geri Halliwell. Guests at Sarah Brown’s “sleepover” included Wendi Deng, Elisabeth Murdoch and Cameron’s riding friend and Murdoch executive, Rebekah Brooks. Cameron invited Jeremy Clarkson, Johnson courted Allegra Stratton.
For more details on Checkers’ role in, as its donor has put it, “shaping the future”, we are indebted to Rachel Johnson, Sarah Vine and, in particular, to Sasha Swire, whose Diary of a deputy’s wife made such a precious companion for Cameron For registration. His memory of the epiphanies of Checkers should always be read alongside his, for example, of the Checkers table speech. “When I announce that I like sex a lot more in my fifties than in my forties, they express their surprise,” she notes of a party where the other guests included Evgeny Lebedev and the famous phobic Etonian libraries, Ed Vaizey. Vine, like Swire, remembers their host’s unwavering commitment to cocktails: âThe place was really, really exciting most weekends.
It wasn’t until Swire recorded the glee as Cameron’s favorites claimed in 2010 the vacant graces and favors that their potential to distort a certain personality type (ie. “We’re like kids in a candy store,” Swire writes, though her friends’ desire for flowerbeds and wilderness is more reminiscent of Jane Austen’s less attractive matriarchs.
While sneer in the footsteps of a former occupant of Dorneywood, “the Perfumed Pauline” (Prescott), Swire notes George Osborne’s early arrival there before Nick Clegg could enter; her husband, the fragrant Hugo, is also delighted with her award, Hillsborough. “You have to be nice to me now, Sasha,” Cameron jokes. “I gave your husband a castle and a butler for goodness sake.” But the glory of that real estate only adds, as Raab would find out, to the agony of his withdrawal. Likewise, despite his resignation, Johnson took three weeks to leave his Foreign Office mansion.
Arriving at Checkers, Swire recalls being greeted by a “rather rigid” member of staff whom she compares – presumably assuming that this person a) can’t read; b) cannot smell; or c) knows her place – with Mme Danvers, Daphne du Maurier’s sinister housekeeper. The funny similarity also strikes Rachel Johnson in Rake progress, where we find the new first family arriving for Stanley Johnson’s birthday party. Greeted by a ‘woman dressed by Mrs. Danvers’, the tribe, excited beyond measure, check out free toiletries,’ museum quality paintings’, ‘cloudy softness’ beds, other’ lackeys of the unnamed RAF whose privilege is to serve his brother, his girlfriend and their dog.
As for Johnson, his attachment to Checkers and, on occasion, Chevening, is probably measured by the regularity with which he fainted – from the lavishly refurbished No.10 – in them, whether to reconfigure his personal life, finish a book. , dodge Cobra meetings or allow him to rent his own country house for a fiscally efficient Â£ 4,250 per month. “For him,” writes his sister, “a victory is hailed as the next Churchill and Checkers and a cavalcade of armored Range Rovers …”
None of this is to say that the latest iteration of Checkers, as a premier party / hideout location for former Bullingdon Club members, renders it totally useless. Theresa May, who appears, perhaps yielding to a sadistic impulse, to be the only former prime minister willing to attend Johnson’s self-glorifying event, occasionally entertained visiting leaders there. Although this much-repeated justification would be more convincing if the public did not already pay for a queen, her heirs and a selection of palaces. How many such places, in the absence of a terrifying influx of dignitaries, does a country need?
All the credit therefore, to the Prime Minister, to have announced with his false party what could have been so easily ignored for another century: that the collection of the country houses of the government is a national responsibility. Without the appeal of these massive houses to politicians like Johnson, who are only interested in status, we might have been spared his post as Prime Minister, that of Cameron, that of the opportunists to come. Thanks, Mr. Arthur.