Ivan finally makes it inside N° 10 Downing St

Last week Belgium's Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist N-VA, was at Downing Street to meet the British Prime Minister David Cameron. It wasn't his first time, but for many Belgian journalists including VRT's veteran UK editor Ivan Ollevier it was. Especially for flandersnews.be Ivan now reports on what it feels like to enter this inner sanctum.

“This will be the first time that I set foot inside number ten.” The press officer who’s welcomed us in front of the world famous front door nods emphatically. “I understand how you feel,” he says. “I’ve only worked here for a fortnight and each time that I put my foot across the threshold I’m amazed about how fortunate I am.”

I stood in this street before. A couple of years ago I was kept waiting outside while European president Herman Van Rompuy was discussing policy matters with Mr Cameron. And as an early teenager in the seventies, when the grill at the bottom of the street hadn’t been put up yet, I came to gawk at the shining door that I had so often seen on television. At the time you didn’t have to pass through a scanner and through the set of security gates manned by armed guards. It was only when Mrs Thatcher was in charge during the eighties that the steel grill was erected. Since then the front door can only be observed standing on top of your toes in Whitehall while policemen eye you suspiciously from behind their unassailable fence.

This time I’ve come to Downing Street in the slipstream of N-VA president and Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever who’s set to meet the British Prime Minister to discuss his project for reform of the European Union. As Mr De Wever will not be met by the PM outside N° 10 (a privilege enjoyed only by foreign heads of state and government leaders) we’re invited to come in to make some shots of the meeting.

No selfies

The front door has no handle and cannot be opened from the outside. “Even the Prime Minister has no key to N° 10,” explains the press officer. “There’s always someone on duty to let him in.” The shining copper plaque on the front door reminds me that the official title of British Prime Ministers is “First Lord of the Treasury”. When we’ve crossed the threshold we’re kindly invited to leave our smartphones (sadly, no selfies!) in a numbered and purpose-built small box in the renowned entrance hall with the chequered floor.

Larry the Chief Mouser and Mr Chicken

N° 10 has been the official residence of the British Prime Minister since Sir Robert Walpole took up residence in 1735. It was the home of famously formidable Prime Ministers as William Pitt the Younger, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

John Major’s wife Norma Major disliked the small flat intensely and the couple used their Huntingdon address as their main residence instead, but most 20th Century Prime Ministers used N° 10 as their home. As Tony Blair had a quite large family he traded places with his next door neighbour Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. N° 11 is said to be more spacious than N° 10. Tony Blair had another home, a Victorian pile in the former mining village of Trimdon Colliery in County Durham in the rainy and windy North of England, where he spent a weekend every month or so. I visited his political agent John Burton there in 2005, in the run-up to the general election.
But N° 10 has since 2011 also been the home of Larry, the cat that staff found at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the first cat that has been bestowed with the official title of Chief Mouser.

The last private resident of N° 10 was a Mr Chicken of whom almost nothing is known, except that he moved out in the 1730’s to make room for the First Lord of the Treasury.

A maze of corridors and backrooms

The camera crew and I are led up a back staircase (unfortunately not the famous Grand Staircase with the pictures of Prime Ministers) through a maze of corridors and backrooms and staircases up to the White Drawing Room. Almost 200 people work in these cramped premises: N° 10 is not only David Cameron’s residence, it’s also his Cabinet Office and his Private Office. The rooms and corridors swarm with advisors, press officers, secretaries, civil servants and security personnel. But the building is much bigger than you would think when standing in the street. In the 18th Century the most unremarkable N° 10 was joined with the much grander house behind it overlooking Horse Guards Parade and has taken over a big lump of N° 12. The White Room where we are now was until recently in private use of the Prime Ministers and their spouses but is now used as a backdrop for interviews and handshakes.

“This will be the way they will come”

After a few minutes and after witnessing part of the meeting between Mr Cameron and Mr De Wever we were ushered out of the room again, back through corridors and backrooms. Sadly I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the supposedly well-kept back garden where Mr Cameron and Mr Nick Clegg, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, held their famously awkward press conference after their agreement in 2010 to form a coalition government. It was the place where the paranoid Mr Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister in the seventies, once mumbled enigmatically to his private secretary: “This will be the way they will come.” Political historians later came to suppose that he meant that military putschists would choose the garden to enter N° 10 to muddy the carpet with their boots and seize power. Only some months later Mr Wilson would resign unexpectedly and mysteriously, making way for his successor Mr James Callaghan. In 1991 an IRA mortar bomb exploded in the garden of N° 10, just after being fired from a van in Whitehall. It only just missed Prime Minister John Major who was discussing the Gulf War with the rest of his Cabinet by a few yards. It left a deep crater in the garden.

After only 15 minutes' visit the camera crew and I were back in the street. We didn’t spot Larry, the Chief Mouser, though.