The perfect present for a Cabinet minister facing the chop

Following a spate of thefts, ministers are now allowed to buy their red boxes

Oliver Wright
Sunday 31 March 2013 19:14
A replica of the British Chancellor's cabinet briefcase
A replica of the British Chancellor's cabinet briefcase

As the ultimate souvenir for years of public service, it certainly beats a carriage clock.

The catch is that you must have been a Minister of the Crown to get one.

One of Whitehall’s best kept secrets can be revealed: that for a little under £1,000 ministers can buy their very own red box to remind them of former glories long after they have been sacked, reshuffled or defrocked by the voters.

Whitehall sources suggest that the decision to allow ministers to purchase their own red boxes was made to discourage light-fingered frontbenchers from “losing” boxes just before their departure from office.

“There have been very, very naughty instances of boxes going for a walk – usually around election time,” said one source. “What ministers need to realise is that however attached they feel to their box, however much they feel it’s a part of their very being and soul, the proper route is to buy them and not steal them.”

The source added that there was an instance where a department lost so many boxes that mandarins had to go to Rymans to buy a briefcase to give to an incoming minister. “As you can imagine he was not best pleased. I think they’ve started locking up their boxes around election time now.”

Since the election three years ago, more than 40 former Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers have availed themselves of the opportunity to buy a souvenir red box.

Some have bought them from their former departments – after paying to have the bespoke security feature removed. Others have, as is their right, gone to the secretive manufacturer of red boxes, Barrow and Gale, to get a new box specially made.

Since 2010, seven former ministers in the Foreign Office and Departments of Education and Justice have bought old boxes. Inquiries to the London firm that has made the iconic boxes since the 19th century reveals that a further 30 to 35 former ministers have bought boxes directly from them.

Mohammed Suleman, a spokesman for Barrow and Gale, said that the only difference between the souvenir boxes and the originals was that the safety features were removed. “It is very nice when ministers come directly to us and acknowledge what we do,” he said.

He would not comment how much ministers paid for their souvenirs or who exactly bought them but other responses from government suggest that a new box costs in the region of £850.

“Ours is a small and very unique service. We aim always to be very discreet and under the radar. It’s not a matter of creating an air of mystery we just want to do the job quietly and we don’t aim to cause any fuss along the way.”

Beneath the distinctive red-stained rams’ leather, the boxes are constructed from pine which has been grown in a cold climate to ensure greater durability. Each box takes three days to finish and weighs between two and three kilos. The lock is on the bottom of the case – so ministers never forget to secure them.

Some former senior ministers were surprisingly reluctant to talk about whether they had bought a souvenir red box. Alistair Darling said he had not bought a famous Treasury red box but neither Gordon Brown nor Ed Balls was available for comment.

One former Labour minister who did own up to having bought one was Dawn Primarolo who served the Labour Government in various roles from 1997 to 2010. She said she thought it would be a nice memento to show her grandchildren.

“When we left [office] we were asked did we want to apply for them. I thought it would be a nice keepsake,” she said. “I was really proud of the children’s centres and it says children’s minister on it, and of course the Department of Education then changed its name. It’s a keepsake for me, just a memento. You can’t use them every day, not unless you want to break your back. They weigh a lot and they’re not practical.”

But what of MPs who fail to make it the lofty ranks of minister? Well in a new initiative Barrow and Gale are now marketing House of Commons green “red boxes” for MPs, a snip at a little more than £1,000.

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