If you’ve ever had to share a house with people who, let’s say, you don’t particularly get along with, spare a thought for the Chevening Three: Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox.
These three UK ministers are to share a grace and favor country residence, it was announced today.
The property in question, Chevening House, a remarkable 17-century mansion, will now be the unofficial rural HQ of Brexit, with the three leading pro-Brexit cabinet ministers having been shoehorned by new PM Theresa May into an unlikely home share there.
As a child growing up in the county of Kent, Chevening was one of the names my grandmother used to conjure with. The Inigo Jones-designed house was located just a stone’s throw from our own home, and was given to the nation in the late 60s by her and my grandfather’s acquaintance, the last Earl of Stanhope.
Today’s announcement of Chevening’s new occupants caused a stir in Whitehall as the splendid abode is usually the exclusive retreat of the Foreign Minister (Boris).
Theresa May, a qualified Remainer, seems to be intent on rewarding these three Musketeers by forcing them to endure Brexit house parties every weekend.
Davis is the official Brexit minister, Johnson is Foreign Secretary and Fox is International Trade Secretary.
There has been no word on how the three ministers will divvy up their entitlements to use of Chevening. Will they resort to a first-come, first served grab on a Google calendar? Or will the others arrive to simply find Boris has hogged the blue room? Who will get the August bank holiday? Or, given that the house has 115 rooms, will they simply stick to their own thirds?
Although the three men all profess to share the Brexit political ideology, they have very different backgrounds and characters.
It is unlikely they will get on like a house on fire.
Johnson is an Old Etonian toff and snob. He is widely suspected to have joined the Brexit campaign merely to further his own political ambitions.
Davis is a true believer to the Brexit cause. Raised on a council estate in Tooting, south London, he became an MP since 1987. In 2008, he resigned as an MP in order to force a by-election in his seat, which he won on a platform opposing the erosion of civil liberties in the United Kingdom by the EU.
Liam Fox, raised on a Scottish council estate, is hardly a simpatico liberal either—he voted against same-sex marriage and has a reputation as something of a hardliner among the Tory rank and file.
Golly, as Boris Johnson might say in his hilarious ‘Beano’ voice so beloved by readers of the Daily Telegraph that the paper was paying him £275,000 a year for his weekly column (he has now resigned the job, citing its incompatibility with his new responsibilities).
It should make for some interesting conversation around the breakfast table, anyway.
Technically, the rural grace and favor seats given to ministers are supposed to be used to entertain important official guests, but in reality, the delights of Dorneywood (the chancellor’s rural pad) and Chequers (the PM’s) are often lavished upon friends of the incumbents as well.
“Chequers is incredibly glamorous in an understated way,” says one recipient of Cameron’s hospitality, “It’s fully staffed up. It’s basically a palace in all but name.”
The same certainly applies to Chevening, one of the most iconic houses in the country.
Staying there as a guest in 1911, Prime Minister Lord Rosebery crossed out “Chevening” at the head of a piece of writing paper and substituted “Paradise”. Chevening is widely thought to be the model for Rosings Park, home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen stayed with her relations in the area in 1795—6 while she was writing the first version of the book.
But the presence of a political threesome—which, some are suggesting, is a pointed snub to Johnson—by new PM Theresa May, may make such largesse to mates less feasible. After all, which of Boris’s posh Eton chums would want to go away for the weekend and risk the horror of being confronted by the oikish grammar-school boy David Davis on the croquet lawn?
The awarding to Johnson, Davis and Fox joint use of the property, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, said today, merely “reflects the fact that all of these secretaries of state will, as part of their work, be needing an opportunity to host foreign visitors and leaders”.
However, political snipers have been quick to suggest that the move actually is a carefully calculated insult to Johnson, effectively stating that Davis and Fox are just as important and influential as him.
It will certainly be a very different atmosphere at Chevening to the one that prevailed when we were growing up.
For many years, up until about 1980, the house was empty for long periods of time and effectively ‘up for grabs’. There was speculation that Prince Charles was going to move into Chevening. Indeed, the Prince himself was a regular visitor to our area of Kent in the late 70’s as he tried to figure out whether or not Chevening could be made to work.
In the end, he baulked at the responsibilities Chevening entailed, writing to then-PM Margaret Thatcher renouncing his interest in the house, and bought the more manageable Highgrove House out of his own pocket instead.
Chevening was for a time occupied by another one of my grandmother’s acquaintances, the then-Speaker of the House of Commons and our local MP, Bernard, later Lord, Weatherill. We would go there to sing carols at Christmas for charity with my grandmother, and Bernard would invite us in for hot chocolate in the magnificent drawing room.
I doubt somehow whether Boris, David and Liam will extend the same hospitality to local residents in the years to come.
They’ll be too busy fighting about whose turn it is to use the bathroom.