Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stately homes for top British politicians

Chequers, the country retreat of Prime Ministers since Lloyd George took up residence there in 1921

Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour home of former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescot

Chevening House in Kent is traditionally available to the Foreign Secretary

One is a 16th-century retreat with a heated swimming pool, another a 115-room mansion set in 3,500 acres of rural Kent, while the third was a Georgian farm and has a croquet lawn. The question that has remained unanswered amid the formation of the Lib-Con coalition is: which ministers will stay where?

Last night Downing Street aides suggested that David Cameron had made his decision over the allocation of grace-and-favour homes — with interesting implications for the fragile political alliance.

Mr Cameron, as is customary, awarded himself Chequers, the country retreat of Prime Ministers since Lloyd George took up residence there in 1921. But it was a trickier proposition to find a place for Nick Clegg.

In a compromise that may test the Lib-Con relationship, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister is to share a house with William Hague, the Conservative Foreign Secretary. The strain of being under one roof at Chevening may be alleviated by having 115 rooms to divide between them. The complicated sub-let will work, aides say, because Mr Hague will be abroad on government business so often.

This leaves George Osborne, the Chancellor, with Dorneywood, the 21-room house where John Prescott was photographed playing croquet with his aides when he was in charge of the country while Tony Blair was abroad.

Dorneywood has traditionally been at the disposal of the Chancellor since it was gifted to the National Trust in 1947, but it became a retreat for the Deputy Prime Minister when Gordon Brown declared that he had no wish to live like a 19th-century aristocrat.

Mr Brown also avoided Chequers when he first became Prime Minister because he felt uncomfortable with an English stately home staffed with a platoon of butlers and cooks and replete with four-poster beds. His resistance waned, however, when he was obliged to return from holiday that August to manage the response to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. He warmed to the mansion and its 1,000-acre estate like his predecessors.

Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, would roam the grounds of Chequers in Lovat tweed plus-fours. Neville Chamberlain relaxed by measuring the girth of its trees.

The mansion costs £500,000 a year to maintain. The bills so appalled Margaret Thatcher that she ordered staff to turn off the swimming pool heater.

Mr Osborne, who is understood to be still undecided about whether his family will move from their Notting Hill home to 11 Downing Street, will enjoy a more modern country retreat. Dorneywood, in Buckinghamshire, was built in 1920.

Chevening, a Neo-Classical house designed by Inigo Jones and built in the early 17th century, is traditionally available to the Foreign Secretary, but was considered by Downing Street to be a logical choice as a shared residence because of its size. Mr Hague and Mr Clegg will arrange to stay on alternate weekends.

Mr Hague will also be offered 1 Carlton House Terrace, a five-bedroom town house used by Foreign Secretaries as their London residence. The house, designed by John Nash, has a ballroom and sits between The Mall and Pall Mall.

Other grace-and-favour dwellings include three flats in Admiralty House, in The Mall, and South Eaton Place in Belgravia, which is usually reserved for the Home Secretary.

There are also the Lord Chancellor’s Apartments at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster, which Lord Irvine of Lairg famously redecorated with handmade wallpaper at a cost of £59,000. It was for a noble cause, he explained. “We are not talking about something down at the DIY store that might collapse after a year or so.”

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