Open House: The Prime Minister's guest list

New papers reveal the eclectic mix - from Hollywood stars to union bosses - who have dined at Chequers. So, Colin Brown asks, guess who went to dinner with Tony - and why?
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Indy Politics

When Kevin Spacey arrived for dinner at Tony and Cherie's country residence, he must have been expecting a star-studded evening.

When Kevin Spacey arrived for dinner at Tony and Cherie's country residence, he must have been expecting a star-studded evening.

The guest list at Chequers, however, proved more eclectic. The Hollywood actor and director found that the other 14 guests included a police chief, union official, head of prisons and a Cabinet Office secretary.

The insight into how the Blairs spend their Saturday nights at Chequers - and their sometimes bizarre choice of dinner guests - was revealed for all to see under the Freedom of Information Act over the weekend.

The guest lists read like a who's who of New Labour supporters, mini-celebrities, businessmen and fading pop stars, sprinkled withoccasional surprise figures such as Christopher Greenwood QC, the professor of international law, who rubbed shoulders with Phil Bobbit, another law professor, and Paul Myners, acting head of Marks & Spencer. Mr Greenwood had earned his place by producing the judgment that reinforced Mr Blair's case that it would be legal to go to war against Iraq.

The lists show that the Blairs carefully juggle guests so that no one is left alone around the table. On the same Saturday night last July, John Reid, then the Health Secretary, shared the table with Maggie Thurer, a mental health specialist, and Simon Stevens, then Mr Blair's health policy adviser at Downing Street.

But perhaps pride of place that night went to James Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch, and chief executive of BSkyB. The Murdoch-owned Sun decisively came out in favour of Labour before the election in May.

Though guests have included Tory supporters such as Cilla Black, invitations more usually go to New Labour "luvvies" such as Richard Wilson, the star of One Foot in the Grave. The actor Patrick Stewart was also among the guests on 21 February last year, along with Maria Wallis, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police.

The former lead singer of Ugly Rumours at university also likes to invite rock stars. Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red, broke bread alongside Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer on 9 October 2004.

The chat show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan were invited to dinner on Saturday 17 May 2003 with the actor Sir Ben Kingsley. Cherie Blair later appeared on Richard & Judy. They also interviewed Mr Blair before the election.

Chequers was donated to the nation in 1917 by Lord Farnham, who thought it wrong that Prime Ministers no longer had their own country estates. The Cabinet Office provides a grant of £250,000 a year towards its upkeep. Under the Blair government,spending on servants has grown by 40 per cent.

Chequers has traditionally provided a relaxed setting for PMs to meet friends and foes. Mrs Thatcher entertained Mikhail Gorbachev there in 1984, not long before he became leader of the USSR. Declaring "this is a man I can do business with," she attributed the visit's success to the country-house atmosphere.

Churchill was known to retreat to Chequers during Second World War air raids on the capital. He once interrupted a Donald Duck screening at Chequers to inform his guests that Mussolini had resigned.

Robert Harris, journalist and author: Dinner date: 26 July 1997

Other guests included: Michael Beloff QC, Lord and Lady Jenkins of Hillhead, commentator Will Hutton, Lord and Lady Irvine of Lairg, Jonathan Powell

"The whole evening was great fun and I had a great time. People like Lord Jenkins and Lord Irving were there. It was one of the first of the dinners as the Prime Minister and his wife had just moved into Chequers, so it was thrilling in that sense, and there was a great feeling of optimism.

"I spoke to Tony Blair which was great but I know them and we had had them over for dinner at our house that March. I had travelled with Tony during the general election so I was used to talking to him.

"It was both a work and social occasion, many social but certain work affairs came up as well. Much of the things we spoke about were private so I would feel it wrong to go into that.

"I would say that it was not about anything other than returning hospitality to us after coming to our dinner party. I think we were there because of that.

"The great thrill for me was to go to the house which is such a historic property. It is an amazing place to go to, and reeks of history. It was marvellous to see a Labour man in there after nearly 20 years and I felt it a privilege to be there.

"We went on a tour of the house after dinner and had a look around which was great. If you have any interest in history, it is an extraordinary house to be in for an evening, as it is not open to the public. It has a real sense of political history."

Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov: Dinner date: 5 December 1998

Other guests included: Margaret Beckett, Joan Collins, Michael Foot and his wife Jill Craigie, Eddie George, journalist Lynda Lee Potter and Sir Richard Wilson

"I was sat next to Joan Collins - who was very striking - with Eddie George sitting opposite me. We talked about all sorts of things. It was a general dinner party conversation and it wasn't particularly different because it was being held at Chequers or because the Prime Minister was hosting it.

"Tony was wearing a denim open-neck shirt while Cherie was wearing more formal eveningwear so it wasn't in that sense a formal occasion.

"To the best of my recollection there wasn't a moment at the dinner when everybody became involved in the same conversation. The size of the table and the numbers of people meant that we chatted to those next to or opposite us.

"After dinner Cherie took the people who hadn't been to Chequers before on a little tour of the place.

"I recall that in the main bedroom there were some paintings by old masters, one of which Churchill had painted a little mouse on during the war. You end up in the library for coffee, around an octagonal table on which sits a battered leather bag that was Napoleon's briefcase.

"Physically, Chequers is a very striking place. Security is very tight there and you're met by armed guards at the entrance."

Beverley Turner, television presenter: Dinner date: 7 December 2002

Other guests included: Paul Boateng MP, Edward de Bono, Trevor Brooking, Richard Eyre, Terry Leahy, Andrew Turnbull and Andrew Lloyd-Webber

"My husband and I got horribly lost as we were the only ones driving ourselves and the instructions they sent us said things like 'turn right after the concealed entrance'. Tony and Cherie were charming and in spite of the formality of being at Chequers, it felt like a family home. I sat next to Trevor Brooking and near Cherie's mum, who was fabulous.

Tony Blair was quite charismatic and taller than I imagined, something of a hunk. He came up to me at the end and said 'you are clearly a very attractive woman'.

The only work conversation I had with Tony was whether London was going for the Olympic bid, which was in its nascent stages, and he felt we should go for it 100 per cent only if we had a chance of winning it. Cherie was delightful. Because James [Craknell] and I had just got married, she gave me advice on a successful marriage, saying it was to be really good friends. James and I had had a little row on the way there and James told Tony about it, which I was embarrassed about, and he gave us marital advice.

It was the day before the Cheriegate scandal about the flats was in the Sunday newspapers. Cherie didn't talk about it but her mother was concerned as a mum would be.

We went on a tour of the house and there were Rembrandts and Turners hanging up, but we also saw family things like Leo's playpen. The meal was nice without being ostentatious and we had coffee in the library before we left."

Ed Sweeney, union leader: Dinner date: 17 July 2004

Other guests included: James Murdoch, Professor Christopher Greenwood QC, Paul Myners (of M&S), law expert Professor Phil Bobbit, John Reid and mental health specialist Maggie Thurer

"I was flattered to be invited and had a really nice night at Chequers with the Blairs. At dinner I had been seated next to James Murdoch but unfortunately I found that I didn't have much in common with him.

"I did have a good chat with Cherie Blair as she's from the same part of the world as I am and I have known her for a quite a long time. She's always good fun to spend time with and is very different from the persona she's been given by the media.

"I think it's relaxing for them to have the company of people whom they feel are interesting. At the same time they are able to build up a network of friends and acquaintances.

"The dinner table chat was about everything and nothing in particular. The Prime Minister was totally relaxed and I found him very easy to talk to.

"There wasn't much conversation about politics. Instead we spent most of our time talking about children, A-levels and the relative merits of minidisks and iPods.

"Tony had a few guitars lying around but contrary to what you might expect he didn't give us a tune.

"At the end of the evening the men had a chance to chat with the Prime Minister or the opportunity for a tour around Chequers conducted by Cherie.

"I opted for the tour and learnt some interesting things about the artwork in the building."

Tanni Grey-Thompson, paralympic gold medallist: Dinner date 22 January, 2005

Other guests included Robert Thomson, the editor of The Times; Ruth Kelly, cabinet minister; Sir Peter Lampl, education philanthropist; Dame Jane Roberts, the leader of Camden Council, and Sir Kevin Satchwell, the headmaster of Thomas Telford School

"It was a lovely experience partly because it was such a small event. The fact there aren't that many people mean it's easy to get around and chat to everybody.

"The atmosphere was pretty informal and it was a very nice, open evening. There was quite a range of people from different walks of life so it was interesting to talk to individuals who I wouldn't meet otherwise.

"The children were around and about and there was quite a homely feel to the place. It was just very normal. There are lots of family pictures on the walls and there were toys in the corner of the living room - as a busy mum, that was really great to see.

"At the dinner I was sat next to Tony Blair and we talked about sport in general, the Olympic bid and politics.

"It was very nice because it wasn't a big boozy affair. The food was a very plain and simple three-course meal with apple pie for dessert.

"After dinner, Cherie took us on a mini-tour of Chequers. Her knowledge of the place is pretty extensive in terms of the history and stories connected with the paintings.

"She was an excellent host and gave us coffee in the library while talking us through the books. I got to hold one of Oliver Cromwell's swords so in that way it is rather special."

Other visitors...

1997: Lord Attenborough (Saturday 11 October); Sinead Cusack and Jeremy Irons (Saturday 15 November); David Furnish and Elton John (Saturday 29 November); Anita Roddick (Saturday 13 December). 1998: Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Salman Rushdie (Saturday 14 February); General Sir Charles Gaulle Guthrie and Delia Smith (Saturday 14 March); Simon Mayo (Saturday 20 June); Stephen Fry (Saturday 18 July); David Bowie and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Saturday 5 September). 1999: Prunella Scales and Timothy West (Saturday 16 January); Richard Branson, Sir Simon Rattle and Emma Thompson (Saturday 13 February); Deborah Bull (Saturday 13 March); Andrew Marr (Saturday 19 May); Dame Judi Dench and Sir Jimmy Savile (Saturday 23 October). 2000: Kevin Keegan and Richard Curtis (Saturday 26 February); Cilla Black (Saturday 25 March). 2001: Dawn French, Sting and Phil Redmond (Saturday 3 March); Steven Redgrave and Des O'Connor (Saturday 1 December). 2002: Esther Rantzen and David Yelland (Saturday 23 March). 2003: Richard Madeley, Judy Finnigan and Alan Rickman (Saturday 17 May); Bryan Adams and Jonathan Edwards (Saturday 18 October). 2004: Richard Wilson (Saturday 21 February); Kevin Spacey and Sir John Stevens (Saturday 15 May); Mick Hucknall (Saturday 9 October); John Motson and Sir Anthony Bamford (Saturday 11 December)

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