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

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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.

Members of the cabinet gather at Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence near Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire. Theresa May was battling to keep her cabinet together ahead of a crunch Brexit showdown at her country retreat.
Image: Cabinet meetings are sometimes held in the house
Theresa May hosting the Cabinet at Chequers, with then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson in the foreground
Image: Theresa May hosting the cabinet at Chequers, with then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson in the foreground

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 house is nestled in the Buckinghamshire countryside
Image: The house is nestled in the Buckinghamshire countryside

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”.

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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.

The Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at Chequers, the Prime Ministers official country seat.
Image: 1923: Stanley Baldwin at Chequers
The Prime Minister staying at Chequers on the eve of the start of his election campaign, strolls along a country lane with his son Robin, daughter-in-law Joy and wife Mary.
Image: 1974: Harold Wilson with son Robin, daughter-in-law Joy and wife Mary
PA NEWS PHOTO JANUARY 1982 MARK THATCHER REUNITED WITH HIS PARENTS AT CHEQUERS, THE PRIME MINISTER'S COUNTRY RESIDENCE IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE. HE HAD BEEN MISSING FOR SIX DAYS IN THE SAHARA DURING THE PARIS, DAKAR RALLY. 25/08/04: Mark Thatcher - who, according to media reports in South Africa, has been arrested by South African police over allegations he was involved in a planned coup in Equatorial Guinea.
Image: 1982: Mrs Thatcher with her son Mark and husband Denis
Prime Minister Tony Blair in the grounds at his country residence, Chequers, today (Saturday) where he welcomed the IRA ceasefire announcement, saying he hoped it would herald a future free from violence and hatred.
Image: 1997: Tony Blair in the grounds of the Buckinghamshire house
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, with his Italian counterpart Romano Prodi at Brown's official country residence, Chequers, near Wendover, north of London.
Image: 2007: Gordon Brown shortly after taking office
Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Chequers in Buckinghamshire.
Image: 2010: Mr Cameron during his first term as prime minister
Pic: AP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement after a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to Chequers near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, England, Friday, April 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, pool)
Image: 2017: Mrs May speaking at the house. Pic: AP
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta at Chequers, the country house of the serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in Buckinghamshire. Picture date: Wednesday July 28, 2021.
Image: 2021: Mr Johnson is hosting a dinner over the weekend

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.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States is pictured with Harold Macmillan in the grounds of Chequers, official country residence in Buckinghamshire of the British Prime Minister.
Image: 1959: President Dwight D Eisenhower, left, with Harold Macmillan
PA NEWS PHOTO 24/2/69 AMERICAN PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON (LEFT) WITH BRITISH PRIME MINISTER, HAROLD WILSON AT CHEQUERS. * 25/9/03: Files released by the Public Record Office reveal the immense detail the British Government went into in anticipation of Nixon's visit. Agendas detailing the topics for discussion were drawn up and redrafted time and time again until agreement was reached on both sides of the Atlantic.
Image: 1969: Harold Wilson, right, with US President Richard Nixon
Palistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a rose garden at Chequers.
Image: 1989: Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Mrs Thatcher in a rose garden at Chequers
British Prime Minister John Major checks his watch as American President Bill Clinton addresses the assembled media at Chequers, Buckinghamshire.
Image: 1994: Mr Major checks his watch as US President Bill Clinton addresses the assembled media at Chequers
President Xi Jinping and David Cameron at the Plough pub
Image: 2015: President Xi Jinping and Mr Cameron at the Plough pub
Mrs May hosted President Trump at the house
Image: 2018: Mrs May hosted President Donald Trump at the house
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta at Chequers, the country house of the serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in Buckinghamshire. Picture date: Wednesday July 28, 2021.
Image: Mr Johnson met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at Chequers in July

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.

Dame Norma Major wrote a book about Chequers
Image: Dame Norma Major wrote a book about Chequers

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.