Before he became boon companion to the now-disgraced financier, Lex Greensill, David Cameron devoted a chunk of his autobiography to justifying Chequers, first among the government’s collection of country houses. “All I can say is that it makes the job more do-able and frees the PM from the day-to-day fray so he or she can think or plan.”
It’s amazing, we learn, what a fully staffed mansion with a pool and tennis court – in the case of Chevening House, a maze and lake – can do to remind a minister of a calling that might easily, in the confines of Downing Street or a family or constituency home, slip their mind. In fact, there could hardly be a greater tribute to the foresight of Sir Arthur Lee, who gave Chequers to the nation, than Cameron’s confirmation that the place occasionally recalled for him “the higher purpose of politics”.
No wonder Boris Johnson, a man only marginally less keen than Prince Andrew on gated, grace-and-favour boltholes, wanted to mark the centenary of 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, was unable to join the Johnsons, who have added trail bike rides to the midlife alleviators on offer. But his memoir is clear about the value of country retreats, regardless of the high cost in both maintenance (£1m annually) and, presumably, the kind of cabinet discontent now afflicting Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, who both want Chevening.
“It helped me to forget,” Cameron explained, “about all the gossip and intrigues and fire-fighting back in Westminster and think about the bigger picture, take the longer view, and think hard about the big decisions I was taking.”
Cameron was not the first to find that a stream of visitors, some eminent, many less so, only enhanced the Lee’s “house of peace”, Cameron was not the first to find. Years ago, the Blairs hosted, among many others, Chris Evans and Geri Halliwell. Guests at Sarah Brown’s “slumber party” included Wendi Deng, Elisabeth Murdoch and Cameron’s riding friend and Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks. Cameron invited Jeremy Clarkson, Johnson courted Allegra Stratton.
For further detail about the part played by Chequers in, as its donor put it, “the moulding of the future”, we’re indebted to Rachel Johnson, Sarah Vine and, in particular, to Sasha Swire, whose Diary of an MP’s Wife makes such a valuable companion to Cameron’s For the Record. His recollection of Chequers epiphanies should always be read alongside hers of, for instance, Chequers table talk. “When I announce that I enjoy sex much more in my fifties than in my forties, they express surprise,” she notes of an evening when fellow guests included Evgeny Lebedev and the famously library-phobic Etonian, Ed Vaizey. Vine, like Swire, recalls their host’s undeviating commitment to cocktails: “The place was positively rocking most weekends.”
Not until Swire recorded the glee as Cameron’s favourites laid claim in 2010 to the vacant grace-and-favours was their potential to distort a certain kind of personality (ie not the revolutionaries Lee once envisaged) so dismally clear. “We are like kids in a sweetshop,” Swire wrote, though her friends’ hankering for parterres and wildernesses is more reminiscent of Jane Austen’s least appealing matriarchs.
While sneering at traces of a previous Dorneywood occupant, “the fragrant Pauline” (Prescott), Swire notes George Osborne’s early arrival there before Nick Clegg could get in; her husband, the fragrant Hugo, is also delighted with his prize, Hillsborough. “You have to be nice to me now, Sasha,” Cameron jokes. “I’ve given your husband a castle and a butler for goodness sake.” But the glory of such real estate only adds, as Raab is reportedly discovering, to the agony of its withdrawal. Likewise, despite actually resigning, Johnson took three weeks to quit his Foreign Office mansion.
Arriving at Chequers, Swire recalls being welcomed by a “rather stiff” staff member she compares – presumably on the understanding this individual a) can’t read; b) can’t feel; or c) knows her place – to Mrs Danvers, Daphne du Maurier’s sinister housekeeper. The droll similarity also strikes Rachel Johnson in Rake’s Progress, where we find the new first family arriving for Stanley Johnson’s birthday party. Greeted by a “Mrs Danvers-dressed woman”, the tribe, excited beyond measure, checks out the free toiletries, the “museum quality paintings”, the beds of “cloudlike softness”, further unnamed “RAF flunkeys” whose privilege it is to serve her brother, his girlfriend and their dog.
As for Johnson, his attachment to Chequers and, occasionally, Chevening, can probably be measured by the regularity with which he has vanished – from the lavishly refurbished No 10 – into them, whether this is to reconfigure his personal life, finish a book, dodge Cobra meetings or allow him to rent out his own country house for a tax efficient £4,250 a month. “For him,” his sister writes, “a win is being hailed as the next Churchill and Chequers and a cavalcade of armoured Range Rovers…”
None of which is to say that Chequers’s latest iteration, as a top party house/hiding place for former Bullingdon Club members, renders it entirely pointless. Theresa May, who appears, perhaps yielding to a sadistic impluse, to be the only former premier willing to attend Johnson’s self-aggrandising event, sometimes entertained visiting leaders there. Though this much-rehearsed rationale would be more compelling if the public weren’t already paying for a queen, her heirs and a selection of palaces. How many such venues, absent some horrifying dignitary influx, does a country need?
Full credit then, to the prime minister, for advertising with his spurious party what might so easily have been overlooked for another century: that the government’s country homes collection is a national liability. Without the attraction of these massive houses to politicians such as Johnson, interested solely in status, we might have been spared his premiership, that of Cameron, that of opportunists yet to come. Thanks, Sir Arthur.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer Columnist