‘This house of peace’: Boris Johnson celebrates 100 years of prime ministers using Chequers

The six men and women who have been UK prime ministers seldom mix together except for solemn occasions such as funerals and Remembrance Sunday.

The dinner to mark a century of prime ministers living at Chequers this weekend is not going to be the cheerful joint celebration which the mansion’s trustees were hoping for.

Four of the living premiers – David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Sir John Major – have turned down their invitations, pleading previous engagements.

That leaves just Boris Johnson and Theresa May to glower at each other. The last time the two met there was in 2018 for the Chequers cabinet summit on the EU negotiations.

Mr Johnson – the then foreign secretary – resigned shortly afterwards, along with David Davies, ultimately helping to bring about Mrs May’s downfall from office.

Whatever the tensions between them, all prime ministers have come to love the country house that goes with the job.

The history

“This house of peace” was first given to the nation after the First World War by Lord Lees, one of Lloyd George’s ministers, and his rich American wife explicitly for “the rest and recreation of her prime ministers”.

For years Chequers was used for just that – relaxation with its tennis court, rolling grounds and swimming pool and for the private entertainment of cronies and political allies.

The keen artist Winston Churchill is said to have taken his brushes to “improve” the depiction of a mouse on an oil painting by Rubens hanging on the wood panelled walls.

Margaret Thatcher usually spent Christmas there and liked to use visits to what she called “Chequers church” for impromptu soundbites.

Mr Blair had to get special permission from the trustees to use the house for work: a TV interview after Labour accepted a £1m donation from Formula One.

Foreign leaders

An invitation to Chequers has become the biggest honour the prime minister can bestow on visiting foreign leaders.

Mr Blair held intimate meetings there with both President Bill Clinton and his successor George W Bush.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel liked the Buckinghamshire countryside so much she asked for a return visit. She then went for a ramble with Mr Cameron who ended up having to help the chancellor climb over a barbed wire fence.

President Xi Jinping pulled a pint in the nearby Plough pub and joked about buying it.

After another long Sunday lunch in the hostelry, the chillaxing Mr Cameron’s motorcade swept out leaving his young daughter Nancy behind.

Sir John often tells how when he turned up with Boris Yeltsin before opening time – the landlord refused to believe the Russian president was banging on the door.

Mrs May did her best to preserve decorum when she entertained the unpredictable Donald Trump in the house and garden.

The financing

The taxpayer contributes £916,000 a year towards the upkeep of Chequers and it is mainly staffed by members of the armed forces.

But the prime minister has to pay for food, drink and entertainment themselves. Some of them, including Mr Johnson, have complained about the cost of playing the host.

Still, most prime ministers and their wives consider Chequers to be one of the best perks of the job. Sir John’s wife Norma even wrote a book about it.

Her husband isn’t going but Dame Norma will be at the centenary dinner – perhaps ready to remind Mr Johnson and Mrs May that Chequers is meant to be a house of peace.

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