Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Built by a rogue developer, No 10 Downing Street is full of surprises... Churchill's chair, a hidden thatcher, and some astonishing art

As Boris Johnson is handed the keys to the Prime Minister's residence, a new life awaits. From office politics to bikes and Theresa May's kitchen legacy, Samuel Fishwick and Sophie Jarvis peek through the keyhole

Keys to the kingdom: Prime Minister Boris Johnson is applauded by staff as he walks into Downing Street
Keys to the kingdom: Prime Minister Boris Johnson is applauded by staff as he walks into Downing Street

By Samuel Fishwick and Sophie Jarvis

As Boris Johnson makes himself at home in Number 10, the first question he'll ask is, "Which room is mine?" It's not as simple as bagsying the top bunk and preparing for the housewarming party. Now that he is Prime Minister, Johnson's life is about to be sequestered by the nation. From the decor of his new digs to whether he will still cycle and what it all means for current Downing Street resident Larry the Cat, here's everything you need to know about the PM's new domestic life.

The address

Behind the famous black front door is actually a series of houses, with two comfortable flats above No 10 and No 12.

Historically, the Prime Minister lived at No 10 but Tony Blair set a new precedent.

Meeting of minds: (left) Prime Minister David Cameron with Baroness Thatcher in 10 Downing Street
Meeting of minds: (left) Prime Minister David Cameron with Baroness Thatcher in 10 Downing Street

"Since Blair, PMs now tend to live in the larger flat, number 12, and Chancellors live above No 10, but this may change," says Dr Jack Brown, the first Researcher in Residence at 10 Downing Street and author of No 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street.

After all, could Johnson resist the lure of sleeping in the same flat Churchill used?

The two buildings are joined internally, a warren linked by an internal corridor, meaning it can be hard to tell where one house ends and the other begins once inside (a door between the Chancellor and PM's abodes was shut at all times during the Blair and Brown years but has remained open ever since).

Sign In

To get to the Chancellor's lair, turn left when you enter through the front door of No 10, pass a pigeonhole where mobile phones are checked in on arrival, head down a corridor of dingy portraiture and up the stairs; the No 10 flat is reached through the lift near the entrance. It's a symbolic choice: the modernity of Blair, Cameron and May, or the more cramped, historic confines.

Insiders wonder if the weight of Downing Street history will trammel Johnson. Will he work out of a study on the first floor, as Thatcher did? Will he favour an open-plan space, like Gordon Brown did? Or will he go down the Blair, Cameron and May route and choose a small room to the back of the Cabinet room?

All agree, though, that these early weeks will be disconcerting for Johnson as he acclimatises to a tighter security detail and the claustrophobic corridors of Downing Street life.

It's a little like moving into "student digs", another ex-adviser says, given the number of people living on top of each other. "From the moment you're awake, your time belongs to somebody else".

Two's a crowd

The new PM and his partner, Carrie Symonds, could be the first unmarried couple to officially live in No 10.

Corridors of power: ( centre) Prime Minister Gordon Brown with US First Lady Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown and US President Barack Obama in 2009
Corridors of power: ( centre) Prime Minister Gordon Brown with US First Lady Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown and US President Barack Obama in 2009

The 31-year-old former Conservative Party spokesperson was absent from the leadership announcement yesterday. Friends have said she will move in but quietly, so as not to detract from Johnson's moment.

Alternative living arrangements are also said to have been discussed.

Symonds and Johnson are believed to have bought a £1.3m property in Camberwell, where Symonds will spend some of her time.

It remains to be seen whether, as a fan of artists such as Christine and the Queens, Björk and Hozier, she will bring her musical tastes to No 10.

Family members get passes to come and go as they please (it's perhaps unwise to assume how many Johnson will need).

The keys to the kingdom

Arguably the most important appointment in the new set-up has already been settled. Catherine Rostron will be handed responsibility for the PM's diary - she has managed the diary for Johnson's party office since 2016.

The rhythms of the wider Downing Street body soon match the circadian cycles of the new incumbent. According to his team, Peak Boris is late morning, so officials looking to brief the PM will be advised to catch him before the afternoon lull.

Part of the furniture

Downing Street itself has seen better days. No 10 was built by diplomat, spy and "perfidious rogue" Sir George Downing in 1680, says Brown, leading Churchill to deem the houses constructed at Downing Street "shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear". Giles Kenningham, former political adviser to David Cameron, says: "There should be a cross-party fund for the upkeep of the buildings. But one of the first things you think is that everything should be in a museum." According to the Mail on Sunday, Whitehall has offered to fit out the Prime Minister's apartment at the taxpayers' expense - there is always funding available for this - amid concerns his recent marital split has left him without any furniture.

While Johnson will have to personally furnish his own quarters, he'll inherit a priceless array of antiques in the public areas of the building.

Taking pride of place is the leather reading chair used by Churchill, with scratches on its arm rests made by his signet ring and his fingernails (interesting, staff note, because they betray that while Churchill was calm and collected on the surface, there was a certain tension beneath).

The new PM at the door of No 10
The new PM at the door of No 10

Art is selected from the Government Art Collection. David Cameron added Tracey Emin's neon More Passion, while Theresa May sent for a Lego model of the Prime Minister outside Downing Street.

Everyone leaves a mark: Thatcher had a small golden figure of a straw roof fixer built into the gilding in the state rooms to ensure there was always a thatcher at Downing Street.

In one of the drawing rooms, in the window frames, hidden in the stucco, are six plaster bees. Tony Blair commissioned them when he was PM, "so there would always be six Bs in Downing Street" representing his wife, his children and himself.

"Boris is likely to pick classical battle scenes, as he sees himself in the mould of Pericles, or a Roman emperor", a source says.

Garden politics

There's always the great outdoors - half an acre of flowering cherry, magnolia, oak, dwarf box edging, rose garlands and modish curved borders in the centre of London, behind a high brick wall, leading down to Horse Guards Parade.

Blair hosted Bill Clinton on the balcony here; Sarah Brown installed a vegetable patch (which wilted); Cameron added a climbing frame for his children and hosted a barbecue for the Obamas.

May was "more of a cook than a gardener", according to a No 10 aide, who adds that the Camerons "may have taken the play area with them". Expect to see "unusual actors, and young Commonwealth people at the garden parties", one Boris confidante offers. No 10 "will be a fun place. An open place. It will have that buzz Blair had in the early years".

Reining it in

But what will Johnson be giving up? "He will not be able to bring his bike", says one staffer. "If there wasn't an exception for Cameron, there won't be for him." He'll have to hire a Boris bike instead.

Johnson will gain an in-house canteen, in the basement of No 10, although the food is disappointing. Cabinet office civil servants prefer to lunch at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office canteen down the road, while Pret a Manger runs have become a regular feature for No 10 staffers.

Johnson is on a new diet with a vegan slant, encouraged by Symonds, and does yoga, so expect the cupboards to be stocked with pulses and grains. Groceries come from Ocado.

He's tipped to be bringing his own hairdresser, having been used to the freedom of the Funky Barber in Eastcote (in his constituency) and The Bay Room, a Turkish barbershop in Angel near his old home. He avoids the Houses of Parliament's hairdresser if he can.

There'll be no Love Actually-inspired dancing or sliding down the bannister from the new PM,as the central staircase gives way to a drop. "Get that wrong and you'll be falling 30 to 40 feet," says an aide. "Hugh Grant must have had stunt equipment."

Paws for thought

Larry, No 10's chief mouser, is said to have earned a reprieve. The 11-year-old tabby, who moved into Downing Street eight years ago under Cameron, was reported to be at risk: one source told this paper that civil servants have been making enquiries at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to see if Larry might return there, though Battersea has told us it had not been contacted and No 10 dismissed concerns.

Home and away

Parliament broke up on Thursday and doesn't sit again until September 3, but that doesn't let Johnson off the hook.

His in-tray will already be bulging - he urgently has to build relationships with Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump and set up trade deals.

Summer is an opportunity to put the legwork in here, although he will try to combine forging alliances with a few breaks - perhaps inviting Macron to Chequers.

Those in Johnson's inner circle say he will try to take a short break too, probably in Europe or in the English countryside. Symonds enjoys glamping in Oxfordshire. Last year, the couple went to Tuscany, weeks before announcing he was divorcing, and it's been suggested that he might return for a few days off before his real work begins.

© EVENING STANDARD

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph