A headstrong nurse. Dusty bottles of wine came out of the cellar to quench the thirst of the amorous guests. A prime minister deals with a global crisis while searching the fridge for a snack in the middle of the night.
No, these are not stickers of life at Checkers from Boris Johnson’s lockdown diaries – reports this week revealed that police were looking into whether activities at the prime minister’s official country residence were in breach of restrictions in a new investigation. Instead, they are featured in it The diplomatis a Netflix drama that gives viewers an extraordinary look at the pardons and favors granted to the most senior members of the British government.
With scenes filmed at Chevening, a Georgian mansion reserved for cabinet ministers, the cast’s antics include nude lakeside activities and woodland walks. Much of the show cannot be compared to diplomatic reality, as current Foreign Secretary James Cleverly pointed out in a “fact-checking” video. For example, a whiskey-and-wood paneling-fueled flirtation between her on-screen counterpart and the US ambassador might overstate the interpretation of “soft power” a bit.
However, combined with the latest Checkers probe, the show has sparked interest in what exactly goes on in these grand buildings.
Historian Sir Anthony Seldon decries that politicians have had “too little incentive” to use these residences for diplomatic purposes. The statesmen of previous eras had their own country houses, he points out; but since David Lloyd George benefited from his Checkers legacy to the nation in 1917, modern prime ministers have mostly been of a ‘different breed’. They still need a spacious “gathering place”, he claims, because Downing Street’s “cheeky townhouse” bears a poor resemblance to the Elysée, the White House or the German chancellery.
The problem arises when ministers use such properties “with a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of purpose”. In other words, don’t let clowns or grifters anywhere near the gates. This proved tricky at times.
Think of the blurry, distant photographs of then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood, when he should be running it while Tony Blair is in Washington. Not much of the “ornateness” that Seldon required was visible. Perhaps not even when George Osborne, then chancellor, fell out with Nick Clegg over the use of Dorneywood – the deputy prime minister ended up sharing Chevening’s 115 rooms with William Hague.
Theresa May made Checkers synonymous with the failed Brexit compromise in July 2018, but the day-long cabinet meeting had some terribly bad reviews from visitors. Phones were confiscated and dissenters were threatened with mini taxis home.
Then came the Johnson era with a £150,000 bulletproof toddler tree house (never built) and a wedding reception (when he resigned he moved elsewhere).
Some may feel the whole set-up has had its day – after all, country houses today are mostly owned by cosplay oligarchs or entertainment luminaries (Mi ho! Madonna in tweed). But we don’t want these people anywhere near power. And it’s probably smart to show off the nation’s assets, even if those who don’t have our own homes of grace might resent it.
Seldon has a point – these houses were donated to the nation to improve the efficiency of our governments. Rishi Sunak, who recently welcomed the president of Ukraine to Checkers and staged a photo shoot in a room used for Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches, seems to get the idea. “Convocation” has value. And it certainly shouldn’t be left to Netflix’s locators.