The Mail on Sunday
Boris, the PM and the bust-up over ‘Brexit Towers’
After furious row over PM’s bid for Davis and Fox to share stately pile with Johnson . . .
BORIS JOHNSON last night appeared to have won the ‘battle of Brexit Towers’ after an extraordinary row involving Theresa May over the Government’s palatial grace-and-favour stately home Chevening.
In a panicked announcement rushed out by Downing Street at 6pm, the Prime Minister offered the keys of Chevening to Foreign Secretary Johnson alone.
The dramatic U-turn marks a humiliating rebuff for fellow Brexit Ministers David Davis and Liam Fox. When Mrs May entered No 10 in July she said the three rivals would have equal access to the 115room mansion in Kent. It was seen as a way to curb Cabinet jealousies.
But the Prime Minister backed down after The Mail on Sunday discovered Mr Johnson, Mr Davis and Mr Fox had effectively been banned from Chevening because of a fierce row with its trustees. The trustees sent a formal complaint to Mrs May, saying Chevening was intended for a sole senior Cabinet Minister and that giving it to the trio was a breach of convention. They refused to allow three official nominees.
The four-month stand-off meant none of the ‘three Brexiteers’ has visited Chevening since Mrs May gave it to them.
When The Mail on Sunday first contacted Downing Street on Friday, Mrs May refused to back down. A spokesman made it clear she was adamant all three should have equal use of Chevening.
However, after frantic talks, Downing Street caved in yesterday and agreed to the trustees’ demand to have a ‘sole Cabinet nominee’ – Mr Johnson. As a face-saving
measure, the spokesman said that Mr Johnson would agree to let Brexit Secretary Davis and International trade Secretary Fox use it if necessary.
But the compromise did not conceal the fact Johnson seems to have won the battle of Brexit Towers and gained control of Chevening.
A well-placed source said: ‘Saying Davis and Fox can use it is meaningless. Boris is the winner. He can let anyone use Chevening.’
A Government source said: ‘All three will have access to the house but the Foreign Secretary’s name will be going forward to the trustees.’ It is not clear whether the trustees will accept the deal.
The embarrassing row was seized on last night by Labour as evidence of Government incompetence over Brexit. ‘If these clowns can’t even sort out who can use a grace-and-favour home, how on earth are they going to negotiate Britain’s way out of the EU?’ said a party official.
If the row had continued, Chevening could have been given to a senior Royal instead. Strict laws s governing its use say that if noo member of the Cabinet occupies the e home, it must be offered to a ‘descendant of George VI’.
In theory, Prince Harry, the onlyy senior Royal without a substantial l home, would qualify. He currently lives in a small cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace.
Under the Chevening Estate Act 1959, the Prime Minister decides the ‘nominated person’ to occupy the house, although since 1981 it has been the Foreign Secretary’s official country residence.
Set in 3,500 acres, Chevening was designed by Inigo Jones and built in the 17th Century. It was entrusted to the Government in 1967 on the death of the 7th Earl of Stanhope.
David Cameron agreed a ‘joint tenancy’ during the Coalition to allow Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to share it with Foreign Secretary William Hague to stop a similar ‘turf war’.
Mr Clegg and Hague were uneasy co-tenants. They never stayed there at the same time and their private staff had to make complex arrangements to make sure they didn’t bump into each other. But Chevening’s trustees are understood to have drawn the line at it being extended from what one source called ‘a joint Cabinet tenancy to multi-occupancy’ with the Brexiteers.
A source said: ‘Chevening was never meant to be used as part of Cabinet horse-trading or to soothe inflated Ministerial egos. It is a cynical abuse.’
But the trustees’ defiant stand was revealed on Chevening’s website which last night was still listing Cabinet Minister Philip Hammond as the official nominated occupant from his time as Foreign Secretary, even though he became Chancellor four months ago.
‘If they can’t sort this out, what chance Brexit?’’