Chillaxing at Chequers: how Boris Johnson used the PM’s country house

When Chequers was gifted to the nation a century ago, the intent was to allow prime ministers two days a week of relaxation in the Chiltern hills, because “the better the health of our rulers, the more sanely will they rule”.

Boris Johnson is alleged to have taken the invitation to kick back more seriously than most, treating Chequers as both a bolthole and a party pad.

“It’s part of the grandeur that he thinks is his due,” said a former colleague. Even after resigning, Johnson and his wife were reluctantly dissuaded from holding a lavish wedding bash in the grounds of the 16th-century mansion, before handing back the keys.

They spent Christmas 2019, after Johnson’s landslide election victory, at No 10, where Mrs Johnson later oversaw a notoriously costly redesign.

But over time they came to spend an increasing amount of time at the wood-panelled Buckinghamshire residence, which is decorated with paintings and antiques and set in large, heavily guarded grounds.

It is formally owned by a trust, and MPs and officials who have visited describe Chequers as comfortable, despite its size, with attentive staff always ready with a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.

“They treat you as important, which Boris would have liked,” said one former visitor who knows Johnson well. “It’s cosy, you’re looked after, your every need is attended to.” Prime ministers are free to entertain at the house – as long as they pick up the costs of food and drink.

After Johnson was hospitalised with Covid in April 2020, it was to Chequers that he returned to recuperate.

It later emerged that even before that, Carrie Johnson – then his fiancee – had based herself at Chequers, with the prime minister commuting back and forth to No 10 during the early days of the pandemic.

Explaining this arrangement after it was first reported almost two years later, Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “At the time, as you know, Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant, in a vulnerable category, and advised to minimise social contacts. So in line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her, they were based at Chequers during that period, with the prime minister commuting to Downing Street to work.”

It would have come as a surprise to many members of the public at the time that “commuting” – or moving their family to a safer place – was within the rules.

Rachel Johnson, the former prime minister’s sister, displayed similar insouciance when she told LBC listeners on Tuesday, “as far as I am aware, all the rules were followed whenever I went to Chequers, which wasn’t often enough”. Presumably the officials who referred Johnson’s diary entries to the police felt that was at least unclear.

“The whole family have a massive sense of entitlement,” harrumphed one former cabinet minister.

Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings hinted in an interview with the website UnHerd last year that the Partygate investigation should have taken in goings-on at Chequers. Asked whether there were parties at Chequers during the pandemic, he replied: “So people say.”

chillaxing at chequers: how boris johnson used the pm’s country house

Boris and Carrie Johnson with their daughter, Romy, making a video call at Chequers. Photograph: No 10 Downing Street/Reuters

Johnson and his growing family reportedly felt so at home at the Buckinghamshire retreat by the autumn of 2020 that he planned to build a £150,000 treehouse in the grounds for his son Wilfred, an idea apparently vetoed on security grounds.

They appear not to have been so comfortable with Chequers’ long-serving staff, however, with the senior housekeeper Charlotte Vine departing in 2020, amid reports about a clash with Carrie Johnson – something Mrs Johnson’s spokesperson denied.

It was over dinner at Chequers that the Johnsons wooed Allegra Stratton, whose appointment as the prime minister’s press secretary precipitated the acrimonious departure of the key advisers Cummings and Lee Cain.

Increasingly preoccupied with financial worries, it was also at Chequers that Johnson entertained the financier Richard Sharp and his friend Sam Blyth, a distant relative of Johnson’s who went on to act as guarantor for an £800,000 loan.

All three have insisted money was not discussed, but it was Sharp’s failure to disclose his connection to the loan that led to his recent resignation as BBC chair.

When Theresa May was prime minister, she tended to prefer spending time at her more modest constituency home in the Berkshire village of Sonning, where she would escape for weekends.

Chequers was mainly used for welcoming foreign dignitaries – including Donald Trump – and for holding key meetings.

May’s former press secretary Paul Harrison said: “In itself it’s quite rarefied – not many people get to go, it’s exclusive – so an invite feels like a bigger deal than it would be to go into the PM’s office in the House of Commons, even though you’re essentially doing the same thing.”

May summoned her warring cabinet there to a dramatic Brexit showdown in July 2018 (the “Chequers summit”) that ultimately precipitated Johnson’s resignation as foreign secretary – once the Brexit secretary, David Davis, had jumped first.

Johnson then helped foment a vigorous “chuck Chequers” campaign from the backbenches that helped to cement his reputation with grassroots Tory members – and seal May’s fate.

At Christmas 2021, Downing Street released pictures taken at Chequers of Johnson, by now married, with his wife, new baby Romy and Dilyn the dog, joining a Zoom call with NHS staff from a squishy blue sofa.

They could not have looked more at home, but after the Partygate revelations and the ham-fisted defence of the disgraced MP Owen Paterson, the seeds of his departure from No 10 seven months later had already been sown.

Johnson certainly took full advantage of Chequers, whose donors, Arthur and Ruth Lee, meant it to act as a country estate for prime ministers in a new, democratic age when they might not necessarily possess their own. Whether he ruled “more sanely” as a result of the time spent in the Chiltern hideaway may perhaps be best left to history to judge.

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