There’s a cat in the cabinet
Forget polls and party conferences, the antics of politicians’ pets are often much more interesting, says Harry Wallop
THIS summer, Downing Street’s removal men were working flat out as a new government took charge. But, for many, there was a far more welcome resident moving into Whitehall: Gladstone, chief mouser to the Treasury.
The handsome black cat joined Larry, a tabby that lives at Number 10, and Palmerston, the Foreign Office cat. Soon, fur was flying. In one particularly nasty incident, Palmerston’s ear was torn and Larry lost his collar as they attacked each other on the steps of Number 11.
‘The quickest way to tarnish a politician’s career is to suggest they aren’t an animal lover
Forget the machinations of Brexit, what most people in Britain really cared about was who was top cat. The brawling felines were proof that the surest way for a dull government department or a scheming politician to win over the sceptical electorate is with a domesticated animal—not least in our digital age, when few things are more popular than a cute kitten on the internet.
Google ‘Larry the Cat’ and you get more than five million hits—eight times more than Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary. Gladstone is big on Instagram (8,000 followers and climbing); Palmerston not only has his own Twitter account (@Diplomog), but a parody one, too. Between them, Palmerston’s accounts have nearly as many followers as his boss, Chancellor Philip Hammond.
‘There are not many other countries that would get quite so excited about a pet being in the centre of its government,’ comments Christopher Day, who has written a book, The Chief Mouser: And Other Official Cats (History Press Ltd). ‘The government cats have taken the position of softening the news, sweetening the pill a little bit,’ he explains.
Mr Day is a historian at The National Archives and he points out that, although Whitehall has never had so many pets as it does now, the tradition of government cats goes back a long way.
The Admiralty had a cat in 1902; in 1936, the Cabinet Office had one called Jumbo and, during the Second World War, Winston Churchill kept Marmalade and Munich Mouser, inherited from Neville Chamberlain, and Rufus, a poodle.
Although HM Government’s pet preference is the cat, in America, it’s the dog. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dog Fala, a Scottie, became a celebrity, the White House has always had a dog in residence— the Obamas chose Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny, to overcome the problem of their daughter Malia’s allergy to dog hair.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Buddy, a chocolate Labrador, was carefully selected by the President’s Facing page: Above: advisors—a black one was dismissed as showing up poorly in photographs, a yellow one because it might upstage the scandal-hit president.
Political pets have always been PR weapons. Soon after the Blairs entered Downing St, rumours circulated that Cherie hated cats so much she’d booted out Larry’s predecessor Humphrey. Questions were asked in the House. In fact, the moggy had poor kidneys and had been retired to the countryside, but a photocall was soon arranged, with Cherie and Humphrey looking as uncomfortable as each other. David Cameron, too, was forced to produce a picture of Larry sitting on his lap after it was suggested he couldn’t stand cats.
And was it a coincidence that George Osborne’s popularity improved after he published pictures of his family’s new addition, Lola, a cream bichon frise? No, it was not.
The official Government cats are primarily there as mousers. Whitehall’s old buildings are notoriously awash with rodents and Palmerston has already racked up 20 confirmed kills. They do become companions, though, especially for the civil servants who
Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, outside 10 Downing Street.