Apparently there are rats in Downing Street (feel free to insert your own joke about politicians here, dear readers!); they have, it seems, been spotted scuttling about in the background of several recent BBC TV news reports from outside the Cameron residence. This is no surprise really; rats are all over the place, with many of them settling and breeding happily in our towns and cities – they’re attracted by the food waste and rubbish humans leave everywhere and can rapidly become a problem, creating unsightly mess and spreading disease.
One solution is to acquire a cat, as anyone who has ever received the feline gift of half a dead bird placed lovingly in their shoe will attest to. In fact, it was in order to prevent rats and other pests noshing their way through food stocks and grain supplies that cats were domesticated by our ancestors in the first place (the sitting on your lap and purring like a lawnmower thing was a pleasant by-product of this process).
A Downing Street spokesman has, however, announced that there are no immediate plans to get a feline rat-catcher in, although there is a ‘pro-cat faction’ (the younger Camerons perhaps?) who would, it appears, like to see a new furry member of the Cabinet Office team recruited as soon as possible.
If a cat were to move into Number Ten, it wouldn’t be the first time that Downing Street has had a feline resident. The Home Office and the Treasury have each had a succession of resident cats, including the Munich Mouser (who may have also lived at Number Ten) during both Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill’s terms of office during the 1930s and 1940s.
However, the first recorded PM’s cat was Wilberforce, adopted as a small black and white kitten from the RSPCA in 1973. Moving in with the short-lived Tory prime minister Edward Heath, Wilberforce soon showed his worth as a mouser and thoroughly charmed Heath’s successors, including one Margaret Thatcher! He retired from politics in 1986, dying quietly in his sleep two years later after a life well lived.
After Wilberforce’s retirement, Downing Street was catless for three years until the arrival of the most famous British political cat of them all. Humphrey (named for the Yes, Minister character Sir Humphrey Appleby) was a stray who fetched up at Number Ten one day in 1989 and soon made himself at home. Much loved by the British public and his humans in Downing Street, Humphrey was affectionately known in Whitehall as the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.
Like his predecessor Wilberforce, Humphrey was a true non-partisan civil servant, serving both Tory and Labour prime ministers equally, and only retiring in 1997 due to Cherie Blair’s alleged antipathy towards him (this dislike, quite frankly, tells you all you really need to know about Cherie Blair as a person…). Rumours and gossip among MPs that this sudden disappearance indicated that he’d been put to sleep had to be rapidly scotched, and after he had been filmed and photographed in his new home to prove he was still alive, Humphrey settled into a well-earned retirement.
He died in 2006, aged 18, after an eventful life that included meeting royalty and heads of state from all round the world, several unexpected adventures away from Downing Street (including briefly being ‘adopted’ as a stray by a Londoner who found him stalking round St James’s Park), and narrowly avoiding becoming a very flat cat indeed under the wheels of Bill Clinton’s two-ton armoured Cadillac!
Since Humphrey’s early retirement, Downing Street has been sadly cat-free, apart from a six month period in 2007 when Sybil (belonging to the then-Chancellor Alistair Darling, and named after Basil Fawlty’s permanently exasperated wife) moved in for a brief but unhappy stay, eventually being rehoused with friends of the Darlings after she failed to settle in her new home.
So maybe it’s time for a new feline resident at Number Ten (and maybe offer it a position in the coalition government? It couldn’t do a worse job…). Joking apart, I would hope that if the Camerons do decide to get a kitty, they will follow tradition and give a much-needed home to a stray or a rescue cat – as Cats Protection rightly suggested this week…