The first 24 hours for a new British prime minister are odd, and busy

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Larry the Cat is seen outside UK Prime Minister's office 10 Downing Street.

Nukes and King Charles—but no door key

The first 24 hours for a new British prime minister are odd, and busy

It may well be the world’s least pleasant multiple-choice question. Imagine that London has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Millions of Londoners are dead. What Britain’s nuclear submarines do next is your decision. Do you a) retaliate? b) not retaliate? or c) wimp out, and let the submarine’s captain decide? If Labour wins the election on July 4th (this article was published before the results were known), at some point on the following day, in a room in 10 Downing Street, Sir Keir Starmer will have to answer this question. Then, very possibly, he will have to pop upstairs to his new flat to unpack his socks and decide where his sofa should go.

这可能是世界上最不愉快的多选题。想象一下,伦敦被一颗核弹摧毁。数百万伦敦人死亡。接下来英国的核潜艇应该做什么,由你决定。你会选择 a) 报复?b) 不报复?还是 c) 退缩,让潜艇的舰长决定?如果工党在7月4日的大选中获胜(本文发表于选举结果公布前),那么在第二天的某个时候,基尔·斯塔默爵士将在唐宁街10号的一个房间里不得不回答这个问题。然后,很可能他还得上楼到他的新公寓,解开他的袜子,决定沙发应该放在哪里。

A British prime minister’s first day is, to put it mildly, odd. If you are the French president you have a week or two to prepare for power; if you are the American, over two months. The British pm has about an hour. From the moment that an outgoing leader resigns, the incoming one begins a day that includes popping to Buckingham Palace; taking a call from the American president; moving house; and writing the “letters of last resort” in which each British pm decides what to do in the event of Armageddon. It is, says Alastair Campbell, Sir Tony Blair’s former spokesman, “a pretty stressful day”.


It begins with a call to the king. Once the election result is known (it is never officially announced, but merely becomes manifest) a losing prime minister will ring the monarch to request an audience. He will then travel to Buckingham Palace and tell Charles III that he has lost the confidence of Parliament. Minutes later, his replacement will arrive for the “kissing hands” ceremony. The phrase is now mere metaphor but the kiss was always supposed to be perfunctory, not passionate. Sir Tony was told that he should “brush” the queen’s hands with his lips, a verb he found so distractingly baffling that, while puzzling over it, he tripped over a piece of carpet and landed squarely on that same royal hand, less brushing than “enveloping” it.


Although the time between quitting and kissing is brief—almost always under an hour—that is still too long for intelligence services who, as one insider puts it, really like to know “who’s actually running the country at a particular minute of the day”. That is just in case, says Gus O’Donnell, a former cabinet secretary, there is a plane “heading towards Canary Wharf… and we wanted to shoot it down”. So fudges are made: the outgoing pm retains some powers until the new pm has kissed the kingly hand; in extremis a new pm can be anointed over the phone. (This approach was considered for Liz Truss, since the queen was so ill.)


From this moment on a new prime minister will officially have “the keys to Downing Street”, as the phrase has it. Except, as Mr Campbell points out, he won’t: “There are no keys.” They are not needed, for the entrance is manned 24 hours a day. Watch the new pm walk towards the (lockless) Downing Street door, just after he has given his first speech in the role to the assembled media. As if in a haunted house, it will swing open before it is touched. (Or so everyone hopes. When David Cameron infamously hummed a tune after his Brexit resignation speech outside Downing Street in 2016, this was not from insouciance but, says Sir Craig Oliver, his former director of communications, from terror that “the door wasn’t going to open and that he’d be…left standing there.” He hummed as a way of “filling the…blank”.)


Behind that door, Downing Street will have been busy. “It’s like being in a country-house hotel,” says Lord Stewart Wood, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, another ex-pm. “You’ve got to do the cleaning quickly before the next guests arrive.” Very quickly. The Downing Street turnaround plan allows about 30 minutes for offices and desks to be cleared and cleaned. As in any hotel, things sometimes slip through: in 2010 the outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury left a note in his desk that read: “I’m afraid there is no money.”


The aesthetic of Downing Street is slightly shabby country-house-hotel, too. Insiders describe its smell as “stuffy” (windows are covered in netting and kept shut, in case of bombs); carpets are held together with silver gaffer tape. For years, the first thing visiting dignitaries saw when the door swung open was, says Sir Craig, “a big tea stain” on the carpet. No one dared replace it for fear of getting “eviscerated in the press” for extravagance.


The overall attitude is, says Lord O’Donnell “pretty hair-shirt”. The pm’s family not only pays council tax on their famous address; they also do their own cooking and, when the time comes, arrange their own removal van. The timing is tricky: pack your children’s toys too soon and “that will leak”, says Sir Craig. But on the day itself the outgoing pm’s possessions—plates, bedding, pants and all—must be carried through the front door. British political careers end not merely in failure but in bubblewrap.


While all that is going on, Britain’s new leader will be chatting to other prime ministers and presidents; choosing the room he will use as his office; and (unless he requests more time to think it over) being sat down to handwrite posthumous instructions that are transported in sealed letters to each of the country’s four Trident submarines. Lord O’Donnell, who has shepherded two pms through this process, tells them to “make sure it’s clear”; if ever there was a time for legible handwriting and intelligible prose, this is it. As Lord Cameron observed, when it comes to the letter, “it is you in the office on your own”. Your prime ministerial career has begun. ■


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