Consuls outside the famous 10 Downing Street door
For the select group of consuls visiting 10 Downing Street this summer it was like entering Dr Who’s Tardis – behind the famous black door, it was so much bigger.
The backstage tour of the Prime Minister’s Residence revealed a seldom told, yet touchingly human side of British political history.
In the entrance passage was an old leather chair that looked like it had been through the wars. In fact it had: the gnarled marks on the armrests were made by Winston Churchill’s signet rings as he clenched his fists during WWII.
The Cabinet Room has a boat (or coffin) shaped table so that all members have sight of the Prime Minister in the middle, with his most senior ministers at the centre. The additional clock opposite his seat was left behind by Harold Wilson, a stickler for punctuality.
An imposing portrait of Margaret Thatcher (commissioned by Gordon Brown) hangs in her former office where she would sometimes work until the small hours in her nightgown.
The White Room, with its two Turner landscapes, is the most photographed room where British Prime Ministers receive VIP guests.
The room has reinforced windows – scars of an IRA mortar fired from the back of a van in Whitehall, which only missed its target because overnight rain had washed away the chalk marking the correct launching spot.
The reception room, which is unnervingly draughty, is apparently haunted by a little girl.
Priceless treasures include Olympic medals and a torch gifted by boxing gold medallist Nicola Adams. Solid gold salad servers in the dining room were used on only one of two occasions when the Queen visited Downing Street to celebrate her Golden Jubilee with surviving Prime Ministers of her reign.
Striking silver candelabra on the table are from the Silver Trust which showcases the work of British silversmiths, a cause still supported by Sir John Major.
Art works are from the Government Art Collection and reveal something about the tastes of prime ministers past and present. There are Henry Moore sculptures (Margaret Thatcher was an admirer) and a bright pink neon sign saying More Passion, one of David Cameron’s favourites, by the enfant terrible of the British art scene, Tracy Emin.
A huge globe sits at the bottom of the stairwell, a gift from French President Francois Mitterrand to Margaret Thatcher. It raised eyebrows when it was discovered that the Falklands are named Malvinas – an oversight by the President or a subtle diplomatic dig?
The stairwell is lined by portraits of past prime ministers dating right back to Downing Street’s first occupant, Sir Robert Walpole. It includes Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.
The story behind the murder even has a consular twist: the assassin was John Bellingham (an ancestor of former Africa Minister Henry Bellingham!), who bore a grudge against Perceval’s government and the British Embassy in Russia for refusing to assist him while he was in jail over there.
A salutary lesson for the consuls…