Out of Office: What does a holiday destination reveal about a premiership?

William Cash considers Boris Johnson’s Christmas break in Mustique and finds a prime minister’s choice of holiday location to be highly revealing.

Mr Harold Wilson on Holiday in the Sicily Islands
Mr Harold Wilson on Holiday in the Sicily Islands

That Boris Johnson managed to get away with a New Year’s beach holiday with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds on the glitzy private island of Mustique tells you quite a bit about the confident state of mind of the prime minister.

Despite Labour leadership candidate and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry referring to the PM as “sunning himself, drinking vodka martinis”, at a time when Donald Trump had given orders to assassinate Iran’s ‘most wanted’ terrorist general, Qasem Soleimani, the overall impression was that Johnson had by good fortune gotten away with it.

That was partly because he had so recently faced the electorate that he was taking his exclusive holiday at a time of maximum political strength. It was also because Mustique is excellent for privacy: not a single photo of Johnson and girlfriend Carrie Symonds on the beach emerged to fix in the public imagination the idea of Johnson as an absentee PM.

Even so, it was a revealing choice. Where prime ministers choose to go on holiday can tell you a lot. For the chillaxing David Cameron to have flown to Mustique to stay in a £20k a week luxury villa – Johnson was reportedly a guest of the Von Bismarck family – within a few weeks of forming the coalition government would have been unthinkable.

Cameron lacked the comfort of an 80-seat majority. During his premiership, we usually got stage-managed PR pictures of the then PM looking uncomfortable wearing a rubber surfing suit on a beach in Cornwall. His chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, preferred the yachts of oligarchs – a subtle prefiguring of his working for one after he left office. This was OK because the public appears to be sufficiently interested to know where the First Lord of the Treasury is holidaying, but not the Second Lord.

It seems likely, in any case, that the public pays only limited attention to these things: it didn’t begrudge, for instance, Tony Blair when he holidayed with Silvio Berlusconi, rewarding him with three straight parliamentary majorities.

The masochistic approach to the holiday season doesn’t seem to work either. For instance, Gordon Brown renting an overpriced holiday home in Suffolk failed to win him any noticeable political capital, nor did Theresa May’s walking holidays in wet Snowdonia, where she apparently made the ill-fated decision to call the 2017 election. Perhaps she would have made a better decision had she flown to Mustique.

At any rate, under the rule of Boris Johnson, it appears we have now entered a new age reminiscent – appropriately, given our classicist prime minister – of ancient Rome. Under the Caesars, the people wanted to look up to their emperors and leaders. It seems that limited electoral reward would now come from Boris slumming it in the Lake District, as Tony Blair famously did. But if this is a new age of prime ministerial high-end freeloading, where does his inspiration come from?

A few candidates have been suggested by some, including Harold Wilson – “perhaps the country’s first image-conscious leader” who was snapped in the Isles of Scilly with his family: the first PM couple to be pictured wearing bathing suits outside their simple cottage. But the glamour element wasn’t quite there, and anyway Wilson owned a house on the island.

Ted Heath was the opposite, and was photographed on his yacht winning the Sydney to Hobart Race as leader of the opposition, and “captaining Britain to victory” in the five-day Admiral’s Cup as prime minister. All good PR, but Boris has never shown any love of sailing and, despite his passion for cycling, possesses a wine-drinker’s rotundity rare, for instance, in winners of the Tour de France.

Johnson’s trip to Mustique, is really a welcome throwback to his hero Winston Churchill. The wartime leader preferred his painting holidays in the South of France with Euro-society beach lizards, louche playboys, writers, and millionaires; he even found time to drop in on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Nobody would have expected anything less from Churchill when he stayed at the St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat villa of Somerset Maugham; Boris Johnson is plainly in this holiday-making tradition.

Churchill, like Johnson, was never one to refuse the hospitality of the rich and famous. The PM is not a natural host, but instead something more rarefied – a professional guest. Churchill was relaxed about where he stayed and dined so long as he wasn’t paying. As one biographer wrote, “He enjoyed the hospitality of the rich, he liked the kind of men who could get things done.” And the man who’s about to get Brexit done obviously feels much the same.

16th January 2020