The secrets of the Downing Street removal firms

Requiring discretion and secrecy, moving a prime minister out of No 10 isn’t your run-of-the-mill removal job. Which is why a few eyebrows have been raised at the Camerons’ choice of company

You can have your tearful waves and valedictory turns at the despatch box, but nothing symbolises the swift brutality of British politics quite like the Downing Street removal van. Dreams arrive packed in bubble wrap, soon to be be shipped out again, invariably showing signs of wear.

“It’s almost funereal, with a hearse pulling up and, rather than taking away a body, they’re taking away the worldly goods,” says Sir Anthony Seldon, the Downing Street historian who has studied the comings and goings of 30 residents at No 10. “It cruelly shows that these are ordinary people who still have to move house.”

But if you’re the prime minister and you need to get your Habitat wall clock and Jamie Oliver pans out in a hurry, who you gonna call? Simply Removals, if you’re David Cameron, which at first seems like an odd choice for one of the most prestigious jobs in a competitive trade.

Theresa May’s removal company arrives at Downing Street to move her in.
Theresa May’s removal company arrives at Downing Street to move her in. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Pictures of men wearing the budget firm’s bright blue T-shirts circulated the media this week as the Camerons made way for the Mays. One remover left the job sheet exposed to photographers, revealing that 330 boxes, 30 rolls of tape and three rolls of bubble wrap had been ordered by “Rosie” (assumed to be Rosie Lyburn, Samantha Cameron’s assistant).

On Wednesday, a Movecorp driver rolled up holding a clipboard showing an order of 10 large boxes for a Ms T May. The Camerons used Simply for their move the other way in 2010, but the unexpected suddenness of their departure this week appears to have caught both parties on the hop. “The call came out of the blue to be honest,” says James Mallet, sales director at Movecorp. “Summer is always extremely busy for removals so they were probably struggling to get anyone.”

Simply Removals didn’t respond to requests for comments and Harrow Green, a third firm seen on Downing Street this week, politely declined to speak, but companies involved in previous big moves were more forthcoming. “Documents like that should never be visible,” says Stephen Morris, boss and founder of Stephen Morris Shipping, which moved the Blairs out in 2007, and the Browns out three years later. Morris is diplomatic but doesn’t appear to rate Cameron’s preferred mover. Nor do many of its less well-known customers, judging by some of the recent accounts of poor service on a removal reviews website

“They looked rather scruffy,” Morris adds.

The Blairs move out in 2007.
The Blairs move out in 2007. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The Camerons may have got a competitive price. But, says Morris: “I don’t even see the point of quoting because the publicity is worth far more. In the case of the Blairs we were on Sky News for nearly 24 hours.” In more predictable times, there is the chance to prepare properly, he adds. “With the Blairs, at the request of Downing Street, we had unmarked vehicles there for several weeks. As soon as it was announced he was leaving we sent in a marked vehicle and it was in the press within 20 minutes. Photographers followed my staff and offered them great big piles of cash for information.”

In this world, discretion is as important as bubble wrap. “We wrap everything so that it can’t be identified and often disguise objects if they have an interesting shape,” Morris adds, declining to offer an example. When his firm moved the king and queen of Greece back to the country after a 46-year exile in 2013, it had to vet local staff to be sure they said nothing political. “On Downing Street we said nothing at all and always put documents in a folder,” he adds.

Harold Wilson moves out and Edward Heath moves in after the general election in 1970.
Same address, different company … Harold Wilson moves out and Edward Heath moves in after the general election in 1970. Photograph: Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Neil Mackay was in the office when his firm, Gerson Relocation, moved Margaret Thatcher out of Downing Street in 1990. “There was an awful lot of stuff,” the firm’s managing director says. “Because prime ministers travel, they collect gifts, whether they want them or not, and they have to go somewhere. No 10 is a warren that goes on and on.”

Do a job well and repeat business can follow the marketing opportunity of the day itself. Michael Gerson, founder of Gerson Relocation, attended her funeral and moved her belongings out of her final home in Belgravia after her death in 2013. Cherie Blair officially opened Stephen Morris’s new HQ in West London. “When I moved Sean Connery to the Bahamas he invited me to have dinner with him twice,” Morris says. “You don’t get that in many jobs.”


Simon Usborne

The GuardianTramp

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