Britain’s Next Prime Minister: The Removal Vans On Standby:

On May 7th – the day after he lost the British General Election – Labour Party leader Gordon Brown made it clear he had no immediate intention of resigning as Prime Minister. On the contrary, it was (in his opinion) his “ constitutional duty to seek to resolve the situation for the good of the country” and to provide Britain with “ a strong, stable government”. The UK media interpreted this as meaning he was determined to hang on to his job as long as possible. ‘The Times’ newspaper concluded scathingly that “He will have to be prised out of 10 Downing Street” and that he simply was unwilling to accept that he had been rejected by the electorate. The results themselves were clear enough: 307 seats for the Conservatives (99 more than in the 2005 Election) and 36 % of the total vote; 258 for Labour ( minus 91) and 26%; 57 for the Liberal Democrats ( minus 5 ) and 23%. It appeared, however, that Gordon Brown was not prepared to abide by the nation’s verdict. Instead, in the words of Simon Hoggart – columnist for “The Guardian” ( who supported the Liberal Democrats)  – “The PM was firmly lodged in Downing Street and was probably not tying coloured labels on the furniture for the removal men”. The same newspaper also reported that the Conservatives were already demanding “the keys to No. 10” – a metaphorical reference to the competing claims for power. In reality, the door to the Prime Minister’s residence doesn’t have a key-hole and can only be opened from the inside.

The tabloids, meanwhile, opted for a somewhat less subtle approach. The ‘London Evening Standard’ declared that Brown was “clinging on despite huge losses” and instructed him to “Get Out Of No.10”. The May 8th edition of “The Sun” newspaper featured a front-page story about “A man aged 59 who was squatting in a luxury home near the Houses of Parliament”. This person, named as a Mr Gordon Brown was “refusing to budge from the Georgian townhouse in Downing Street, central London – thereby denying entry to its rightful tenant”. His reluctance to leave has not been a complete surprise. Politicians who achieve power don’t usually like to give it up. Gordon Brown is no exception, especially as he had to wait ten years (1997-2007) before he managed to push Tony Blair out and replace him as Prime Minister. It appears also that he does not want to be categorized by history with other post-Second World War British leaders who occupied No.10 for a relatively short period of time:  Sir Anthony Aden (1955-1957: Conservative) , who resigned after invading the Suez Canal; Edward Heath (1970-74: Conservative) who took the UK into the European Community but called (and lost) an early election after a confrontation with the Trade Unions; James Callaghan (1976-79: Labour) who was PM during the “Winter Of Discontent” (1978-79), had to seek support from the “minor parties” such as the Liberals, Ulster Unionists, Scottish National Party (SNP) and (in a parallel with the current political situation) was sustained in power by the Lib-Lab Pact (1977-78).

Although 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister’s official residence, not all of them like to live there. Lord Salisbury ( 1887-92 & 1895-1902) preferred his house in Arlington Street SW1 and his estate at Hatfield House (Hertfordshire); Harold Wilson (Labour), under pressure from his wife, was based at their home in Lord North Street SW1 while PM from 1974-76, but “maintained the public illusion -  for symbolic reasons – of living at No.10”. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, he took over the large flat above No.11 Downing Street ( the official residence of the Chancellor Of The Exchequer) as it had more space for his family than the smaller area above No.10, which was used by (the then bachelor) Gordon Brown. The Government’s “Chief Whip” (responsible for keeping the party’s Members of Parliament under control) is located at No.9, and the Prime Minister’s Information & Research Unit, Press Office and Strategic Communications Unit at No.12. The buildings in the street were all constructed between 1682 – 1684 by Sir George Downing, a wealthy speculator who was reputedly also a spy for Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England, Scotland & Ireland :1653-1658) and then for King Charles II (1630-1685). The last private resident of No. 10 is said to have been a “Mr Chicken, about whom little is known except for his name”. It has been the official address for Britain’s Prime Ministers since 1732, when Sir Robert Walpole moved in at the invitation of King George II.  Living there, however, has had its risks. It is constructed on soft soil, has had a tendency to sink, has suffered from extensive dry rot and cracked walls and consequently has required frequent repair. The general public were allowed into Downing Street until the Margaret Thatcher era (1979-90). Restrictions were then introduced to counter IRA terrorism threats. The current black steel gates at the entrance were installed in 1989. The street is guarded by the Metropolitan Police Service’s DPG (Diplomatic Protection Group). Access these days is limited mainly to the media, Cabinet ministers, organizations delivering petitions, visiting dignitaries, specially invited guests – and to the removal vans. The nation is waiting to find out if their services will be required in the next few days.

 

Filed under: Politics | Posted on May 11th, 2010 by Colin D Gordon

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