Image Credit: Pete Souza - White House Photographer
Politicians constantly top lists of most hated and most mistrusted professions in the UK. The residents of 10 Downing Street are not going to win any popularity contests. But one resident has proven himself widely loved by all, at least all whose opinions matter, and has become Britain’s most treasured civil servant: Larry the resident Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, whose responsibility is to keep the rodent population of 10 Downing Street under control. Larry arrived as a stray from the Battersea Dogs and Cats home in 2011, where he now has a Blue Plaque in his honour. His popularity also saw a surge of adoptions from the shelter.
However, soon after Larry’s arrival, his work ethic came under scrutiny. No consistent narrative has emerged of Larry’s ability as a mouser. The government fractured into factions with some lambasting Larry as lazy and possessing a “distinct lack of killer instinct” while others touted his hunting abilities with a staff member even accusing him of ‘wanton cruelty’. But these accusations meant were not of matter to the British public who fell for the furry civil servant. For them it does not matter if Larry was napping while Cameron resorted to throwing a fork at a mouse during a cabinet dinner. He is a cat, and for Larry’s adoring fans, this is enough.
Cameron, however, reportedly tried to get the feline fired when he failed to catch a mouse in his study in 2012 but fearing the public outcry a secondary cat was bought in,so no feelings were hurt. Freya, the new mouser, proved to be effective at her job but spats with Larry and her desire to roam further than Downing Street meant she retired in 2014 and Larry, once again, became the sole mouser of Downing Street.Larry has also had altercations with Foreign Office Chief Mouser, Palmerston, shortly after Palmerston snuck into 10 Downing Street and had to be evicted by police.
The role of cats in British politics is not a new phenomenon. The position of Chief Mouser was created in 1929, but they have played a significant role from 1515 when Cardinal Wolsey placed his cat by his side while acting as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII.Despite this, it took until 1999 for a cat to lead a political party with Catmando co-leading the Official Monster Raving Loony Party for three years who oversaw the greatest electoral performance of the party. Heremains the only cat to lead a UK political party.
Though cats are seemingly loved by the nation, they are not exempt from political scandal.Humphrey, who served as Chief Mouser for eight years under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, left the position surrounded by mystery.
When the Blairs moved into their Downing Street residency press reported friction between Cherie Blair and the Chief Mouser. In response, photographs were released of Cherie and Humphrey, seemingly at peace,but the public still feared for Humphrey’s job security. He retired shortly after, moving in with an elderly couple in London, with kidney problems cited as the reason but some believed the bad blood between Cherie and Humphrey as the true cause.
The secretive manner of Humphrey’s retirement from Downing Street, reportedly done to reduce the risk of kidnap attempts, made some concerned for Humphrey’s well being. Conservative MP, Alan Clarke, suspicious about Humphrey’s retirement, demanded proof of life, saying: “Humphrey is now a missing person. Unless I hear from him or he makes a public appearance, I suspect he has been shot.” To refute these accusations Alastair Campbell, journalists were taken to a secret location where Humphrey was staying. A hostage-style photo of Humphrey was released with him posing next to the day’s paper to prove that reports of his assassination were greatly exaggerated.
The role of cats in British politics may seem like a frivolous, if fascinating, history. But they remain one example of how politicians attempt to humanise themselves or appeal to the public. Across the pond, Donald Trump has become the first president in America’s entire history not to have any pets. Trump has stated that he has been advised to get a dog as it would look good politically: the Obamas had one, called Bo. The recent arrest of Julian Assange saw an outcry of concern over his well-dressed, but otherwise indifferent, cat.
Being seen as an enemy of the Downing Street mousers can be-come a public relations nightmare and fuel for a smear campaign. They are more than a cute and furry novelty, but the relationships between politicians and animals have become important to politicians’ public images. It demonstrates how attached the public are to their pets and how unattached they are to their politicians when the potential removal of the 10 Downing Street’s Chief Mouser from their office is more outrageous than the removal of a country’s leader.