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Why covering the changing of the guard at Downing Street is really the cat's whiskers

The everyday stress of covering the hectic life of British politics also has its fuzzy side, as Good Morning Britain journalist Peter Cardwell reports

Published 15/07/2016

Good Morning Britain reporter Peter Cardwell greets Downing Street cat Palmerston
Good Morning Britain reporter Peter Cardwell greets Downing Street cat Palmerston
New Prime Minister Theresa May with her husband Philip outside 10 Downing Street
New Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at 10 Downing Street
Larry the Downing Street cat
Former Prime Minister David Cameron with Larry the cat
Cherie Blair with Humphrey, who was the Downing Street cat in 2007
Stalking the halls: Palmerston the Chief Mouser

As Good Morning Britain presenter Charlotte Hawkins and I jumped out of the taxi on Tuesday at 5.30am, we knew that it was going to be yet another momentous day in a turbulent month in British politics.

David Cameron was about to resign, and Theresa May was preparing to become the next Prime Minister. As we met our sound man and cameraman in Downing Street, we shivered in the cold. But we were welcomed by two little friends with the warmest of hearts.

While David and Samantha were packing their bags to make way for Theresa and Philip, there are two residents of "The Street" (as we Westminster hacks call it) who are going absolutely nowhere - Larry and Palmerston.

Larry the cat has been chief mouser at Downing Street since 2011, and he's recently been joined by Palmerston at the Foreign Office, which backs onto Downing Street. The two share territory, and have been known to cross paws from time to time, notably earlier in the week in footage captured by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

Larry, like Palmerston, is a rescue cat from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and was chosen because of his predatory skills after various rodents were spotted in and around Downing Street. Wisely, the Camerons chose a rescue cat. As a fully paid-up member of Cats Protection myself, I am glad our now former Prime Minister followed the 'adopt, don't shop' rule, which discourages farming and gives preference to homing rescued animals.

He even paid tribute to Larry during his last Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, saying: "I can't take Larry with me because the staff love him very much, as do I."

Sadly, like many in high political office, Larry's mouse-catching manifesto promised more than he could deliver, and he has caught very few mice.

But what the brown and white tabby has given we journalists who spend lots of time hanging around waiting for the Prime Minister to emerge, as well as the hundreds of staff and politicians who go through the famous black door every day, is a lovely feline focus on something soft, fluffy, friendly and not at all political. He's very tame, and happy to be fussed over by the journalists and camera crews, often showing just how relaxed he is by displaying his ample tummy.

More active than lazy old Larry, and more inquisitive, is Palmerston. The black and white moggy is even friendlier, and often wonders over from the Foreign Office across the road, sniffing around the Press pack and accepting strokes and chin scratches.

Named after the former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston, his original name was Leonard - the website BuzzFeed actually put in a Freedom of Information request to gain this information.

His record on rodent control is much better, with at least three mouse kills since he started work at the Foreign Office in April.

Palmerston's credentials have been questioned, however, with former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond quizzed by a Conservative MP, Keith Simpson, in May, whether the moggy had "been positively vetted by the security service and scanned for bugs by GCHQ". "Can you assure the House, and the more paranoid element of the Brexiteers, of Palmerston's British provenance and that he is not a long-term mole working for the EU Commission," he asked.

Hammond replied: "He is definitely not a mole, and I can categorically assure you that Palmerston has been regularly vetted. As for being a sleeper, he is definitely a sleeper, I am told very often in my office. His attendance record has been 100%. My experts tell me that pretty much rules out the possibility of him being a commission employee."

Until recently, Downing Street had a third cat, owned by the Osbornes. As George Osborne moves on, his wife, Frances, and children, Luke (14) and Liberty (12), will be moving out of Number 11, but Freya has already gone. The tabby has a habit of doing a disappearing act. In 2009, when she was a few months old, she went missing from the Osbornes' family home in west London. Despite an extensive search including posters, they failed to find her, and gave up hope. He was later located and moved into Downing Street, sparking rumours lazy Larry would be stripped of his title as chief mouser.

Luckily, a job share was proposed, and for a couple of years, until Freya retired to the countryside, she was the scourge of many a rodent in the corridors of power. Sadly, Freya had an accident at one point and was hit by a car, but she was nursed back to health.

I consulted legendary Sky political correspondent Peter Spencer, now retired, for an insight into Downing Street pets of days gone by.

Peter told me: "I can remember Humphrey, who was chief mouser under Major and then Blair, who was prone to wandering. More than once I had to chase him up Whitehall and bring him back. But let's not forget the fox who regularly used to pad up Downing Street, utterly impervious to security or anything else.

"One of the coppers confided in me that he had to keep it a secret from his wife (because she hated foxes), but he used to regularly feed the creature!"

Downing Street, for understandable reasons, is a hugely secure street, fenced off from the public. There are dozens of armed police officers and constant comings and goings, whether it's the Education Secretary coming in for a meeting, or a bin man driving his lorry through the huge black metal gates to collect the Camerons' empties.

As a teenager who dreamed of working as a journalist in and around Westminster, there are some things you can't know in advance.

Downing Street, for example, is always freezing, caught in some sort of weird wind tunnel no matter what the weather. There are no toilets for journalists, so you have to nip up to McDonald's on Whitehall, hoping they won't force you to buy a Big Mac (and that the PM won't come out to resign while you're doing a pee).

The houses themselves are mainly offices and staterooms, rather than a residence, and I've been inside the big black door a number of times for meetings and receptions.

As a political producer on Newsnight and Question Time previously, I had to meet David Cameron's head of broadcasting every few months, and once we met in The White Room. The very day before, an ailing Margaret Thatcher had visited Number 10, and met David Cameron in that same room. The Number 10 gardener had very thoughtfully cut Baroness Thatcher's favourite flowers and put them in a vase, and they were still on display beside the sofa as the official and I discussed which poor Cabinet minister had drawn the short straw for Question Time that week.

Believe it or not, twice a year the Prime Minister has the Press pack in for drinks - once at Christmas and once in the summer.

Despite the often tricky relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, these occasions are always good fun. In the winter, the huge Christmas tree dominates The Street, and mulled wine and gossip are the order of the evening. Ascending the famous staircase to the function rooms, you are confronted by the portraits of every British Prime Minister. It's quite a house, and the novelty never wears off.

In the summer, the parties are usually in the Downing Street garden and, shorn of their mobile phones for security reasons, the Press pack is very relaxed, and the Prime Minister happily stands and chats.

As a minnow in this grouping alongside such big beasts as Robert Peston, Laura Kuenssberg and Adam Boulton, in my experience David Cameron nonetheless always said hello and had a brief chat with anyone who wants to talk. It's quite fun saying to your friends the next day: "As I was saying to the Prime Minister last night..."

I've interviewed Theresa May a number of times, mainly when I worked for Sky News. We went to the same college at Oxford University, St Hugh's, and like me she is an obsessive Earl Grey tea drinker (both of us carry bags of it around with us in case - horror of horrors - there is none available).

She is quite a serious person, but always pleasant, and her steely determination shines through

Obviously, as a journalist, I don't back any political party, but, like those Earl Grey teabags. I have every confidence Mrs May will prove her strength when she's put in hot water.

  • Peter Cardwell is a reporter for Good Morning Britain

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