A rebellious sister. Dusty bottles of wine stolen from the cellar to quench the thirst of the enamored guests. A prime minister tackling a global crisis while raiding the fridge for snacks in the middle of the night.
No, these are not cartoons of life in Checkers from Boris Johnson’s prison diaries: reports this week revealed that police were poring over them during another investigation into whether activities at the prime ministers’ official country residence violated the restrictions. Instead, they appear in the diplomata Netflix drama that has given viewers an extraordinary view into one of the houses of grace and favor bestowed on the most senior members of the British government.
With scenes filmed at Chevening, the Georgian mansion reserved for the use of Cabinet ministers, the cast’s antics include a nude grapple in the lake, as well as walks through the woods. Much of the spectacle cannot be taken as diplomatic reality, as current Foreign Secretary James Cleverly pointed out in a “fact-check” video. A whiskey-fuelled, wood-paneled flirtation between its on-screen equivalent and the American ambassador, for example, can take the “soft power” interpretation a bit too far.
However, in combination with the latest Checkers research, the program has raised interest in exactly what goes on in these large buildings.
Historian Sir Anthony Seldon laments the “very little intelligence” of politicians in the way they exploit these residences for diplomacy. The statesmen of earlier times had their own country houses, he points out; but ever since David Lloyd George benefited from Checkers’ legacy to the nation in 1917, modern prime ministers have been for the most part “a different breed.” They still need a spacious place to “meet”, she argues, because the “little town house” on Downing Street does not compare to the Elysee, the White House or the German Chancellery.
The problem occurs when ministers’ use of such properties comes with “a sense of entitlement, not a sense of purpose.” In other words, we shouldn’t let clowns or con artists near the gates. This has sometimes been difficult.
Think of the blurry long-distance photographs of then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at Dorneywood, playing croquet when he was supposed to be in charge while Tony Blair was in Washington. Not much of the “decency” Seldon calls for was shown. Perhaps not when then-Chancellor George Osborne fell out with Nick Clegg over the use of Dorneywood, did the deputy prime minister end up sharing Chevening’s 115 rooms with William Hague.
Theresa May made Checkers synonymous with her doomed Brexit compromise of July 2018, but the all-day cabinet meeting to pass it drew terrible reviews from visitors. Phones were confiscated and dissidents were threatened with minicabs home.
Then came the Johnson era with his plan for a £150,000 bulletproof toddler treehouse (never built) and wedding reception (moved elsewhere when he stepped down).
Some may feel that the whole montage had its day; after all, country house life these days is mostly the preserve of costumed oligarchs or entertainment luminaries (what the ho! Madonna in tweed). But we don’t want these people to come close to power. And it’s probably smart to show off the nation’s assets, even if those of us without our own home of grace and favor might resent it.
Seldon is right: these houses were donated to the nation to improve the effectiveness of our governments. Rishi Sunak, who recently welcomed the Ukrainian president to Checkers and hosted a photo shoot in a room used for Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches, seems to get the idea. “Summon” has value. And it certainly shouldn’t be left to Netflix location scouts.