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A Chequers history: the country palace of British prime ministers

Who’s that at the window? Suzanne Plunkett/PA Archive

In a mansion set in 1,000 acres of English countryside, the British prime minister Theresa May will chair a crisis meeting of her cabinet on July 6 in the latest attempt to reach agreement on Brexit. It will take at least all day and its consequences may be felt much longer.

The venue, a two-hour drive from Downing Street in the county of Buckinghamshire, has been the country residence of every prime minister since David Lloyd George in the early 20th century. Despite being at the centre of British government and its dramas for a century, very few members of the public have ever seen it. Rather like the office of prime minister itself, as one former premier, Herbert Asquith, put it, Chequers “is what the holder chooses and is able to make of it”.

For Margaret Thatcher in her 11-year term from 1979 to 1990: “Downing Street and Chequers were the twin centres of my personal and professional life.”

Chequers was given to the nation by Sir Arthur Lee, an MP and minister during and after World War I. The Chequers Estate Act 1917 created a trust allowing prime ministers use of the mansion on the ironically egalitarian assumption that they would not necessarily have their own country estate. It states:

It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn.

Lee renovated Chequers and filled it with fine art, furniture, and relics including Napoleon’s dispatch case, Elizabeth I’s ring, and Nelson’s pocket watch, as well as providing an endowment of £100,000 for its upkeep. The Act believed – or hoped – that “the better the health of our rulers the more sanely will they rule”.

One of three “grace-and-favour” country homes of senior British ministers, Chequers provides one of the conventions of the British system: a new prime minister ensures it remains available to his or her predecessor immediately after their loss of office, and their departure from 10 Downing Street. The solicitude of the gesture is perhaps counteracted by the fact that it also provides a final reminder of what else they have lost. “I do not think,” Thatcher wrote, “anyone has stayed long at Chequers without falling in love with it.”

A place for reflection

It was at Chequers in December 1923 that one of May’s predecessors, Stanley Baldwin, decided to stay on after he had lost the Conservatives’ majority in his own unnecessary general election. It was also there exactly two years later that he fashioned a solution – as it was thought – to the Northern Ireland border question.

It was walking in the grounds in September 1939 that Neville Chamberlain felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of the Munich Pact. During the war that Munich failed to prevent, Winston Churchill regularly broadcast from there. Anthony Eden was at Chequers as foreign secretary in June 1941 when news arrived of Germany invading Russia, and was there as prime minister in October 1956 when he had the bright idea of inviting Israel to invade Egypt.

It was at Chequers in March 1970 that Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s inner cabinet decided to call an early general election; the outcome meant that it was the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, who got to show US president Richard Nixon around with the Queen. (Nixon visited twice, and had his own, infamous, affinity with the name, if not the spelling.)

Ted Heath with the Queen and Richard and Pat Nixon at Chequers in October 1970. PA Archive

Both the Bush presidents, senior and junior, and Bill Clinton also visited, as it’s likely will the incumbent US president, Donald Trump, later in July – when the remoteness and security of the house will be of particular appeal.

Necessary tranquillity

The beginning of the end of the Cold War might be said to have begun at Chequers in December 1984 when Thatcher welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev. Ten years later, John Major entertained Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, who proceeded to drink the place dry. It was at Chequers, the month before her death, that Princess Diana met Tony Blair, secretly, as Prince William swam with Blair’s children in the pool which had been built by Heath in 1973.

Love of this stately home was held to be an example of one reason for the “great betrayal” perpetrated by the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The illegitimate son of a Scottish ploughman was deemed by critics to be preoccupied with gaining the approval – or more – of English high society.

Baldwin spent every weekend he could there during his three terms in the 1920s and 30s. Despite having his own country house, Churchill was fond of it. Heath was, too – and in time acquired one of his own. Wilson liked it much more than did his wife, Mary, whereas Major’s wife, Norma, was so affected that she wrote a book about it.

Thatcher hosts Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto at Chequers in 1989. PA Archive

Clement Attlee hosted children’s parties in the house; James Callaghan and Thatcher spent their Christmases there (separately). In September 1998 Blair’s official spokesman Alistair Campbell saw the appeal of the residence for his boss:

He spent most of the day just sitting out in the garden, surrounded by papers, taking an occasional phone call, the Wrens who work there serving him tea whenever he wanted it. The food was good and the atmosphere relaxed.

One witness noted how Chequers revealed the tonal shift from the premierships of Gordon Brown to David Cameron:

Gordon would greet you in a full carriage-built suit and then go round the children’s table asking them what they were reading. Dave wore jeans and a casual shirt and looked as if he’d lived there all his life.

The July summit is not the first time a prime minister has convened an all-day meeting “in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills” to try to determine an unsettled Britain’s place in the world. On another summer’s day in June 1959, just over two years after a divisive national event – Suez – provoked existential angst about decline, Harold Macmillan held a top-secret summit at the house. It produced what it hoped would be a blueprint for a Britain trying to find a way of balancing the US and Europe. It concluded: “Whatever happens we must not find ourselves in the position of having to make a final choice between the two sides of the Atlantic.” Chequers awaits another “conclusion”.

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