Great for parties, useless for governing: grace-and-favour homes are the spoils of power | Catherine Bennett

At the start of the last Conservative era, David Cameron had something “terribly awkward” to ask his deputy, Nick Clegg. “George has for so long had his eye on Dorneywood… He’s very close to me… Would you mind if he used it instead of you?” Clegg concluded: “George Osborne had been measuring up the curtains for years.”

At this point in a counter-factual, Clegg would refuse to concede the grace-and-favour mansion, a furious Osborne, probably raving about storing bagged-up Clegg in his freezer, would be forced to share Chevening with William Hague and, after some sulking, would quit, never to reappear – as triggeringly as ever – on election night 2024. Britain would thus be spared, among Osborne’s many experiments in tormenting the less fortunate, the bedroom tax he said was only fair: “There are 8 million spare rooms across the sector.” Eight million and eight, if you counted Dorneywood.

Instead, in 2010, Clegg conceded and Osborne left nothing to chance. “George and Clegg fighting for Dorneywood,” Osborne’s friend Sasha Swire wrote in her diary, “but then George just drives down there to plant his flag – well, toothbrush to be more precise.”

When did Osborne commit to a political career? Do we date it, in the manner of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Pemberley, from his first seeing the beautiful grounds at Dorneywood? Judge for yourself next year when they open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for two months max (booking essential).

In no time at all, the Osbornes joined the Camerons, who had moved into Chequers, and the Swires, gifted Hillsborough Castle (and some sort of matching job) in an orgy of country house party planning. Hugo Swire texts a viscount friend: “Forget your castle, come to my castle!” The first Mrs Osborne texts Mrs Swire: “ ‘You must come and stay at Dorneywood.’ I text back: ‘And you must come to Hillsborough, darling!’ We are like kids in a sweetshop.”

Now the entire sweetshop, featuring three key country houses and some prime London real estate, is at Keir Starmer’s disposal. Chequers for him, Dorneywood and Chevening for two or more – if he insists on some sharing – ministers. In the unlikely event that the incoming tenants have, like Osborne, long coveted these properties, it is still difficult to imagine their feelings come close to the unholy exultation that overcame successive Tory ministers when they were gifted their very own Bridesheads. Featuring, in the case of Chequers, 24-hour service, upmarket toiletries and deferential staff. Or “flunkeys”, as former regular visitor Rachel Johnson called those members of the armed forces doomed to wait on the Camerons, Johnsons and Trusses. The Sunaks, one suspects, for some reason, to have required less watching. Although Margaret Thatcher said everyone falls in love with Chequers, they don’t: Theresa May, like Gordon Brown and the Majors, reportedly preferred her home for weekends, keeping Chequers for official events.

If a combination of frenetic entertaining and a severe guest shortage – is there another explanation for the Goves, Swires, Evgeny Lebedev? – seems to have characterised the Camerons’ Chequers experience, the mood at the first Johnson gathering sounds more to have evoked the glee of a feral tribe, unused even to eating off plates, which has, in a triumph of low cunning, seized a palace. Their third palace, actually, since Johnson previously snagged Chevening instead of sharing it (as May intended) with David Davis and Liam Fox and also settled, at eviction-defying length, in Carlton Gardens.

But it was at Chequers that the Johnson family found the perfect venue for birthdays, tennis and, if only their golden ticket hadn’t got himself fired, weddings. His sister appreciated, particularly, “special homemade Chequers branded truffles”. Amid “Turkish kilims on cream carpets, cream silk ruched lampshades. The overall impression – warm, creamy elegance and comfort”.

It’s not clear why a housekeeper, Charlotte Vine, who’d worked at Chequers for years, left only months into Johnson’s tenure, reportedly having signed a non-disclosure agreement. Cameron’s sister-in-law rushed to pay tribute to a favourite retainer – “nothing ever a problem”.

As with Chequers, the gifts of Chevening and Dorneywood for the use of senior politicians expressed a lingering national conviction, still enshrined in the National Trust endeavour, that important men (this was before female substitutes) and important country houses are, ideally, indivisible. Their donors probably never foresaw a time when Tory ministers, like Truss and Raab, would squabble over properties, or conceived that five or so years in a serviced mansion would, if it didn’t upset distant constituents, be a magnet, above all, for the entitled.

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Osborne’s excuse for withholding the names of his guests at the house he occupied for six years, was, shamelessly, that Dorneywood was for his “private use”. Only thanks to the Leveson inquiry was it revealed that one weekend’s guests included – when Rupert Murdoch was seeking approval to bid for BSkyB – Rebekah Brooks and her former colleague, David Cameron’s (subsequently imprisoned) director of communications, Andy Coulson. It would be a service to history, in fact, if its incoming Labour occupant finally shared, years after Osborne blocked it, the contents of the Dorneywood visitors book.

Although the effect of country estates on leaders is demonstrably not, contrary to the hopes of the Chequers donor, to make them govern “more sanely” – it has become hard to imagine the British premiership being either safe or, for leaders with young families, tolerable without it. How weekends at Dorneywood (donated in the 1940s) and Chevening (1959) work to the advantage of anyone but the occupying ministers, their relations and friendship groups, is harder to make out.

As much as Labour incomers have earned their turns in properties exchanged for the past 14 years between some of the idlest and least meritorious ministers in British history, it might be worth taking the long view. If free statelys intensify the risk of future Osbornes, Trusses, Raabs and Johnsons, can they even be considered safe?

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

The Guardian

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