December 25 approaches. Thoughts turn toward opening presents on Christmas morning, tucking into a traditional Turkey dinner, eating chocolate and sipping sherry, with eyes and ears nationwide ready to tune in to the Queen’s address to the nation. However, after the advent period of 2020 was dominated by questions over whether families can come together in spite of coronavirus restrictions across the country, it begs the question: what does the prime minister actually do at Christmas?
Traditionally, British prime ministers have spent Christmas at the Chequers Estate, which has served as the official country residence of the UK leader since 1921. This will be where Boris Johnson will be heading to spend December 25, in what will be a much more subdued Christmas day than normal.
Chequers sits in 1,000 acres of countryside in the county of Buckinghamshire and is generally used throughout the year as a weekend retreat for the incumbent British leader.
Situated 41 miles from Downing Street, it is an ideal getaway from the capital city and a glamorous venue for hosting diplomats and other high-profile visitors from abroad.
The estate has been under government ownership since the First World War. Prior to this, it was assumed that prime ministers would come from wealthy backgrounds and as a result would own their own country residences. However, the changing social dynamics of the day meant that this could no longer be understood to be the norm.
So then came The Chequers Estate Act of 1917: its then owners, Conservative peer Sir Arthur Lee and his wife, Ruth, signed the property over to the government to be used by the incumbent prime minister.
Indeed, a stained glass window at the estate is now adorned with the description: “This house of peace and ancient memories was given to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the great war of 1914–1918 as a place of rest and recreation for her prime ministers for ever.”
The estate was fully renovated and adorned with fine art, luxury furniture and relics, with David Lloyd George the first prime minister to use it as his own from 1921.
For some prime ministers, Chequers became more than a weekend retreat. During Margaret Thatcher’s term, the whole Thatcher family resided there throughout the Iron Lady’s 11-year premiership.
Up to now, only Gordon Brown has really diverged from the tradition of prime ministers using Chequers for personal reasons, opting instead to reserve the estate’s usage for official state business such as hosting summits.
Had Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister, it would have cast doubt on the immediate future of Chequers as an exclusively prime ministerial privilege. The Islington North MP had promised in the lead-up to last years general election that he would hand the keys of the estate over to a homeless family if he were to be elected into Number Ten.
Over the next few days in the final run-up to Christmas, The Leaders Council will take a look back at some of the historic events that have unfolded at the prime minister’s country retreat during the holiday season down the years.