Political careers are often short and brutally curtailed. To spend 10 years at the heart of the British government, working for three successive prime ministers, and still be loved by most colleagues, despite a reputation for grumpiness and being rudely territorial, is remarkable. Larry, who hits a decade in Downing Street on February 15, is the great survivor.
He has unseated Cabinet ministers, charmed and disrupted U.S. presidents, and even been stroked by my eight-year-old daughter. He has never given an interview, though he seldom hides his opinion. Officially, he holds the title of Chief Mouser; most of us in Westminster know him as just Larry the Cat.
Larry is the latest in almost a century of Downing Street cats. They serve the government, whoever is in charge, handed on from one prime minister to the next. When David Cameron, his first senior colleague (Larry would never call a prime minister his boss), made his final appearance in the House of Commons, in 2016, he mentioned this. “Sadly, I cannot take Larry with me,” he told the M.P.’s. “He belongs to the house and the staff love him very much, as do I.”
When Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital in April 2020 with the coronavirus, his spokesman also had to address concerns at the time about the virus being transmitted to pets. “Larry is absolutely fine,” he reassured the press.
And when Theresa May, prime minister between those two, resigned in 2019, she had to wait for the stage to be de-catted. For half an hour before her statement, Larry sat on the doorstep, his back turned contemptuously against the press. The black door swung open, and Larry was invited inside. He refused, so a policeman grabbed him, like a sullen teenager forced to say good-bye to his aunt.
Larry also made Trump wait on his visit that year by lying underneath his armored car and refusing to move. “Breaking,” tweeted Jon Sopel, the BBC’s Washington editor, “anti-Trump demonstrators fail to stop motorcade, but cat does.” He did, though, allow President Obama to stroke him in 2011. No wonder the post of Downing Street cat has been classified since 1964 as “diplomat” rather than “pet.”
Cats have had an official position in Downing Street since 1929, when the Treasury authorized a daily payment of a penny toward the maintenance of a cat to control mice. Some have been very popular. In June 1995, the temporary disappearance of Humphrey, who had served Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was front-page news in The Times. Two years later, Tony Blair’s spokesman had to deny press speculation that Blair’s wife had killed the cat. Humphrey had merely retired on health grounds.
Larry arrived in the first year of the Cameron administration, chosen as a four-year-old tabby from the strays at the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. He made his first kill within weeks, but since then, overfed by the staff, he has grown lazy. So poor was he at his job that, in 2017, May had to call out pest control 40 times.
The post of Downing Street cat has been classified since 1964 as “diplomat” rather than “pet.”
Larry’s other duties are defined as “greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defences and testing antique furniture for napping quality.” His favorite perch is on Churchill’s old chair by the radiator, but he will happily take anyone’s seat.
“He would slink around looking as if he owned the place,” says Andrew Mitchell, Cameron’s chief whip. “On one occasion I found him on my chair. When I suggested he move, I got a look of contempt.” Mitchell also recalls Larry’s almost throwing up on the home secretary’s leopard-print shoes, “presumably on the grounds they represented a superior intruder of the species.”
Those shoes belonged to May. Katie Perrior, May’s press secretary when she became prime minister, says Larry scared the Cabinet. “He likes to lie in the walk between the front door and the Cabinet room,” she says. “Secretaries of state would tiptoe round him. Nobody would dare shove him out of the way.”
May had little love for him, and the feeling was returned. “I used to smell cat wee in her office,” Perrior says. Larry has similarly been marking his territory with urine since Johnson got a Jack Russell terrier, Dilyn, in September 2019, making it clear that while Dilyn is only a lodger, Larry owns the place.
Only one creature has stood up to him. He had a long-running feud with Palmerston, the Foreign Office cat, who averaged 30 kills a year and held ambitions for a promotion. When Palmerston invaded Downing Street, fur would fly (to photographers’ delight), but Larry always saw him off.
At 14, he is getting old, though few would bet against him having one more prime minister. Perrior always had a press plan for how to handle his death. “It will be the front-page splash,” she says. “There were several bad news days when I considered doing him in myself to bump my bad story off the front.” She wisely resisted. No government could survive if that got out.
Patrick Kidd is editor of the “Diary” column in The Times of London