The cat that rules 10 Downing Street
Defeat will ensure prime ministers are turfed out of Downing Street. Only death – or old age — can remove the Mouser.
Although the British are better known for their love of dogs, the preferred quadruped at their prime minister’s official residence is a cat. Known as the Chief Mouser, its principal responsibility is to keep Downing Street rat-free. It’s usually a tabby but David Cameron told Parliament in 2016 it should be considered “a civil servant”. Larry, the present incumbent of this grand office, is a stray rescued from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He served during the premiership of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. But there’s an important difference. Defeat will ensure prime ministers are turfed out of Downing Street. Only death – or old age — can remove the Mouser.
My niece, Narayani Basu, who is, in fact, an accomplished biographer, has compiled a brief history of the feline presence at the heart of the British government. It goes back to the reign of Henry VIII. Cardinal Wolsey kept a cat by his side whilst fulfilling his duties as Lord Chancellor. Records dating back to 1929 show the government officially took charge of the cat’s upkeep.
In that year a penny a day was provided “towards the maintenance of an efficient cat”. Thereafter, the sum steadily increased and by the 21st century, the Mouser cost the British exchequer £100 per annum.
The Downing Street website describes Larry’s duties as “greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defences and testing antique furniture for napping quality”. It says he’s “contemplating a solution to the mouse occupancy of the house” and he’s informed the prime minister that a solution is still in the “tactical planning stage”. Clearly, Larry prefers the perquisites of the office to its responsibilities.
Narayani’s research suggests Cameron has had more to say about Larry than any of his successors. She found no mention of Sunak’s opinion of the cat. So we have to rely on Cameron if we want to understand Larry better.
According to him, Larry is a “bit nervous” around men. However, it seems Barack Obama is the exception. “Funnily enough he liked Obama. Obama gave him a stroke and he was alright with Obama,” Cameron is reported to have said.
However, there have been times when Larry has upset prime ministerial wives. When his fur was found all over her husband’s suits, Samantha Cameron banned him from the prime minister’s flat. Indeed, there was even a time when a cat-proof barrier was erected to prevent Larry from entering the nearby Foreign Office. William Hague, as foreign secretary, asked for it to be taken down. It is said he had a soft spot for Larry.
The blunt truth is Larry’s security lies in the fact his popularity often exceeds that of the prime minister of the day. So, as stories started to spread that the Camerons did not like him, the prime minister was forced to tweet that he and Larry got on “purr-fectly well”. The British public was reassured!
People have often wondered why Larry hasn’t featured in a departing prime minister’s honours list. Perhaps that’s because he finds artful ways of stealing the show. When Theresa May and her husband posed with the Trumps at the entrance of Number 10, Larry perched on the window ledge and featured in every photograph.
Later, he sheltered from the rain under Trump’s armoured Cadillac and could not be coaxed out. This led Jon Sopel, then of the BBC, to tweet: “BREAKING: Anti-Trump demonstrators fail to stop Donald Trump motorcade, but Number 10 cat does.”
Of late, criticism of Larry is heard more frequently than before. It centres around his temperament and job performance. Apparently, officials at Downing Street have noticed “a distinct lack of killer instinct”.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story. The views expressed are personal