For politicians, summer holidays are a stressful business – as Grant Shapps can confirm. If he was in any other job, winding up in quarantine would have prompted sympathy, not sneers and titters, but for the Transport Secretary to fly out to Spain only to have to turn around and fly home again was always going to seem comical, whichever way he tried to play it.
Even in normal times, politicians’ holidays are fraught with peril. Apart from all the usual problems (Will your plane depart on time? Will the airline lose your luggage? Will your hotel bear any resemblance to the pictures in the brochure?) politicians have an additional headache to contend with: namely, how will your holiday snaps be viewed back in Blighty?
If you go somewhere glamorous you risk looking out of touch. Settle for somewhere humdrum and you risk looking dull and dreary. It’s a problem successive prime ministers have wrestled with, and the results are always illuminating. For, in spite of all the spin, their holidays reveal far more about our leaders than anything they get up to at Westminster.
Harold Macmillan – The Yorkshire Moors
Imagine a modern prime minister going grouse shooting with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire! How would that go down with today’s focus groups? Rather well, I reckon. Voters hate seeing MPs aping proletarian pleasures. We far prefer politicians who remain true to who they are. In fact, Supermac was a master of stage management – and for him, a holiday on Barden High Moor was very clever PR. It bolstered his carefully cultivated persona as a timeless toff, indifferent to passing fads and fashions. And though shooting grouse is pretty posh, there’s nothing remotely flashy about the Yorkshire Moors.
Harold Wilson – The Isles of Scilly
Home or abroad? That’s the holiday conundrum that haunts every prime minister. Stay at home and you look like a stuck-in-the-mud. Go overseas and you look like you’re living it up at the taxpayers’ expense. The first PM to reveal his knees (he was happy to pose for holiday snaps in shorts and sandals), Wilson found the ideal compromise with his holiday home on the Scilly Isles – far flung, almost foreign, but still part of the UK. It was a typically canny choice, but his love of the place was genuine. He holidayed in the same modest bungalow on St Mary’s from 1958 until he died in 1995. ‘I come here for every holiday,’ he reflected, ‘because you can get away from everything.’ He’s buried in the parish church on the island he adored.
Margaret Thatcher – Cornwall
Margaret Thatcher was reputed to hate holidays, regarding them as an unwelcome chore, but she still went on a fair few of them during her decade as Prime Minister. She returned early from a ten-day break in Corsica, having ‘done’ the island in four days, but she seemed to have more fun in Cornwall.
Her favourite spot was Constantine Bay, a few miles from Padstow, where she stayed with her husband Denis in a bungalow belonging to Lord Wolfson, her Chief of Staff. Constantine Bay is renowned for its splendid surfing, but history does not record whether the Iron Lady ever caught a wave.
John Major – Candeleda, Spain
John Major’s refuge from the cares of office was a small Spanish town called Candeleda, in the heart of rural Spain. He stayed in the holiday home of his Tory party colleague, Tristan Garel-Jones. Sir John first visited Candeleda in 1989, and after holidaying there for more than 20 years, the town named a street in his honour.
Two hours drive west of Madrid, Candeleda is a popular weekend retreat for Madrilenos, a good base for hiking in the nearby hills – one of Sir John’s favourite occupations. ‘He obviously likes it here and we’re delighted to receive him,’ said Councillor Rodrigo Munoz, the brains behind the Avenida de John Major. ‘I’ve enjoyed a beer with him the last couple of times he’s been, and he seems a very nice down-to-earth man.’
Tony Blair – Tuscany, Sardinia, Toulouse, Florida
If Peter Mandelson was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,’ Tony Blair was intensely relaxed about going on luxurious holidays. And why not? He stayed in Cliff Richard’s house in Barbados, in Silvio Berlusconi’s Sardinian mansion, in a Tuscan villa owned by Prince Girolamo Strozzi, and in a chateau in Le Vernet, near Toulouse. It was all very Britpop, very New Labour – a perfect antidote to the grey Major years. But even when he was blinging it up abroad, Blair was always mindful of his public image. When Berlusconi turned up for a photocall wearing a bandana (worn to hide a recent hair transplant, apparently), Blair asked Cheri to stand between them, to put some distance between him and the colourful Italian premier.
David Cameron – Ibiza, Portugal, Lanzarote
As the debonair ‘heir to Blair,’ David Cameron’s holidays were perfectly pitched at Mondeo man – the kind of getaways we all aspire to, even if we can’t afford them every year.
Unlike a lot of prime ministers, he actually looked like he was having fun on holiday – but his summer hols proved that even normal mishaps can seem ridiculous when they happen to a PM: being stung by an off-message jellyfish in Lanzarote, or struggling into his trunks beneath a Mickey Mouse beach towel.
Dave and Sam Cam did their bit for the British tourist trade by holidaying in Polzeath, in Cornwall, but they always seemed more relaxed abroad. If you want to follow in their footsteps, head for Montevarchi (near Siena) or Aljezur and Alvor (both in the Algarve).
Theresa May – Switzerland
In a premiership beset by bitter squabbles between Leavers and Remainers, Mrs May’s hiking holidays in the Swiss Alps appeared to reflect her favoured form of Brexit – outside the European Union, but a lot closer to the EU than her tormentors in the ERG desired.
However it seems this synergy was largely accidental. Actually, her close relationship with Switzerland stretches way back to the 1980s. ‘We decided to go walking, enjoyed it, and gradually began to do more adventurous hikes,’ she wrote in the Telegraph in 2007. ‘We have been going back ever since and have walked all over the country.’ Zermatt and the Bernese Oberland are among her favourite locations. ‘If you’re a keen walker, Switzerland is a wonderful summer destination. The views are spectacular, the air is clear and you can get some peace and quiet.’
Boris Johnson – Mustique
Understandably, Boris Johnson has become a big fan of staycations in recent months, encouraging his fellow Britons to spend their summer holidays in the ‘peerless, wonderful, superlative places in the UK.’ However before the Covid crisis, he was also partial to the odd foreign trip. Good for him (staycations are overrated).
On Boxing Day he flew to the Caribbean with Carrie Symonds, to enjoy some winter sun in a luxury villa called Oceanus on the island of Mustique. The accommodation was a gift – nothing remotely wrong with that of course, all above board and entirely legit – though there was some fleeting confusion in the press about who had paid for it. The prime minister forked out for food, drinks, staff and economy flights.