Boris Johnson is set to be named the new British PM overnight. Times political expert Matt Chorley speaks with former prime ministers, senior civil servants and spin doctors to find out what the new inhabitant of No 10 can expect in his first 48 hours in office (whoever he may be).
Not many people get to do it. In the past half-century, more people have walked on the Moon than across the threshold of No 10 as a new prime minister.
When the new prime minister stands on those famous steps this week he will find it a daunting prospect. They always do. Sir John Major felt it had come too soon. When he was confirmed as the new PM in 1990, his wife, Norma, turned to a friend and asked, "Is it going to be all right?"
Britain's political system does not allow for a slow and careful transition between administrations, as in America. Some, like Gordon Brown, have years to prepare. Others, like Theresa May, a matter of days. This time, the new prime minister will be named Tuesday (10pm NZ time) and he will take office the next day, stepping on to a nonstop treadmill charging at 100mph.
"You're never ready," says Tony Blair. "The one thing you realise the moment you come into government is that campaigning to be the government is completely different from governing as the government." Was he frightened? "Yeah, I was … 'Frightened' is perhaps not the right word, but I was somewhat overawed, yeah."
Recalling that night in May 1997 as he willed the Tories to win more seats, fearing a New Labour landslide might spark some kind of constitutional crisis, he adds, "I think I was one of the very few sober people around that night and I was very sober and very, very conscious of the responsibility."
For David Cameron, there was the psychodrama of five days of coalition talks, before it became clear that he would indeed be PM. Sitting in the leader of the opposition's office in the Houses of Parliament, he called his wife: "Sam, love, you'd better get your frock ready. We're going to see the Queen."
And that is the first thing that happens even before you get to Downing Street: a trip to Buckingham Palace.
After PMQs on Wednesday, May will formally resign as PM, recommending to the Queen whom to summon as her successor. May will arrive at the palace in her prime ministerial limousine, but be driven away in a private car. The trappings of power fall away quickly.
The audience with the Queen can be a daunting moment, not least because she will remind the new PM that he is the 14th of her reign. Winston Churchill was her first.
Boris Johnson's biggest dilemma: What to do about his girlfriend?
What Boris Johnson's forgotten novel says about the UK's likely leader
Blair was waiting in a Buckingham Palace anteroom for his first audience with the Queen when an official approached to explain, "You don't actually kiss the Queen's hands in the ceremony of kissing hands. You brush them gently with your lips," as he recalls in his memoir. This left the PM-in-waiting baffled, wondering if this meant brushing like a pair of shoes or the very lightest of touches.
Before he had time to work it out, he was ushered in, tripping on a piece of carpet and almost falling directly upon the Queen's hands – "not so much brushing them as enveloping them".
Margaret Thatcher insisted her audiences with the Queen were "quietly businesslike", although she said stories about tensions between the two women were simply "too good not to make up".
Cameron had a habit of blurting out details of his conversations with the Queen – famously that she "purred" down the phone to him after Scotland voted no to independence.
From the palace it is a short mile and a half car journey down the Mall and Whitehall to Downing Street to address the nation. This speech matters.
It has grown in significance. For Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi ("Where there is discord, may we bring harmony"), it was a few snatched words to a huddle of cameras. These days it is a big lectern moment. As with May's "burning injustices", those first words on the steps of No 10 can set the tone for a premiership, and come back to haunt you.
With the world's media gathered opposite No 10 and news helicopters hovering overhead, the narrow street creates a cauldron of noise.
It was easier for Blair – Labour apparatchiks had packed the street with Union Jack-waving party supporters. A decade later Brown took no chances. On the morning he became prime minister he went into a room in the Treasury with his gatekeeper Sue Nye and spin doctor Damian McBride to practise delivering his speech without notes – "I will try my utmost" – while his two aides played the role of protesters.
"Boo!" shouted Nye. "You're a bad man!"
McBride got more into it: "Why did you sell the gold, Gordon? You ruined my pension! You've got blood on your hands!" At this last insult Brown stopped mid-speech and demanded to know, "Why is there blood on my hands?"
Some are more memorable than others – Cameron declaring, "This is going to be hard and difficult work," had the hallmarks of a speech written in haste. It was also delivered in the dark, thanks to the Dark Lord of spin, Peter Mandelson. He advised Brown to leave in the early evening, still in daylight, knowing that by the time Cameron reached Downing Street the gloom would have descended.
Having delivered the speech in a blaze of flashbulbs, the new prime minister will turn and walk towards perhaps the most famous door in the world. This is the moment he will have fantasised about.
Waiting behind the door will be Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, at least for now. There has been speculation he could face the chop, although the new PM might soon realise they have bigger things to worry about.
The cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant in the country, welcomes the new prime minister and their spouse (if they have one) before the couple walk towards the cabinet room, down the corridor lined with Downing Street staff who just an hour earlier will have waved off Team May. Lord O'Donnell, former cabinet secretary under Blair, Brown and Cameron, says, "You've got a very frenetic hour when you're rearranging the furniture. You're trying to work out precisely what our new prime minister might want. It's horrible. It's … barbaric, actually, is the word I would use."
The changeover is brutal in its speed and efficiency. On the night in 2010 when Brown left Downing Street he was barely out the door when Jeremy Heywood, the No 10 permanent secretary, told staff to "snap out of it. We have a job to do." And so they dried their eyes and prepared for Cameron's arrival.
"It's a bit mawkish really," says Baroness Bertin, who entered No 10 as Cameron's press secretary. "You can still, you know, smell them. They've only just left. The pizza boxes were still in the bin. We all trooped into Gordon Brown's office and the table had scratch marks and indentation marks where we imagined mobile phones had been smashed into it."
The civil servants will line up, clap and smile and make their new boss feel welcome. This tradition is born not out of servitude to new masters but a more practical purpose: in the pre-television age, it was a chance for Downing Street staff to see the new PM and their team up close so they could recognise them about the place.
"It's very noisy," recalls Katie Perrior, who entered No 10 in 2016 as May's director of communications. "There's lots of back-patting and people are realising, 'We're here now.'"
Anji Hunter, Blair's adviser, says this moment illustrates the professionalism of the civil service. "They don't display their political affiliations. That same group of people had been there an hour before we were there, weeping as Major left with Norma. They had clapped out John Major and they clapped us in, beaming, literally beaming and delightful."
Blair arrived deeply suspicious of the civil service, believing they were beholden to the long-running outgoing Conservative administration. The same was true of Cameron when he moved in after 13 years of New Labour. "Actually, within almost hours that's completely gone," says O'Donnell.
While the clapping and smiling have been going on, the cabinet secretary has run round the back corridor to be waiting for the PM outside the cabinet room.
The cabinet room
Stepping into the famous cabinet room can be an emotional moment. Blair said he pictured "a thousand images fluttering through my mind" of Disraeli and Gladstone and Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill and every other great statesman who had held court and power in this room.
A photographer captured the moment Cameron had his head in his hands as he entered the room, as the enormity of it all dawned on him. O'Donnell was to his left, while to his right was his wife, Samantha, pregnant with their daughter, Florence, who was allowed to enjoy the private moment of history before being whisked off.
By tradition all the chairs around the cabinet table are neatly pushed in; the prime minister's seat is at an angle. It is also the only chair with arms.
The PM sits. Waiting on the vast coffin-shaped table is bottled water, still and sparkling, and a small dish of mints. It is going to be an intense first meeting. After all the euphoria, the applause and the smiles, it quickly gets serious. Really serious.
One of the first jobs is to write letters to the UK's Trident submarine commanders giving targeting instructions only to be opened in the event of a nuclear attack where communications with London have broken down.
The chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, is likely to be on hand to offer advice. However, nobody knows what the PM puts in the letters, which are sealed and taken to the Clyde naval base in Scotland where the submarines are based, with whichever boat is at sea having its letter on board.
The PM must also name a dozen ministers and advisers who would be given a space in the underground nuclear bunker, alongside their families, in the event of Armageddon.
Joining them around the cabinet table might be the heads of the security services. There will be a fast update on the most pressing issues of national security: live counterterror operations, imminent threats and urgent decisions delayed by their predecessor.
"This isn't exactly an easy first couple of meetings," says O'Donnell.
"It's incredibly scary," agrees Lord Wood of Anfield, a foreign policy adviser to Brown. "It's a particular kind of torture to make the first act of a prime minister, literally within 30 seconds, this extraordinarily dramatic act of handwritten notes only to be opened in the event of an apocalypse."
That moment encapsulates the feeling of loneliness that so many prime ministers have spoken of. There is no one to share it with, nowhere to turn. The buck stops with you and you alone.
While things are calm but serious in the cabinet room, outside all hell could be breaking loose as the PM's political team get to meet their new colleagues, tour their new office and try to grab the best desks.
In 2007, while Brown was at the palace his team had a 2pm appointment at the "link door", a Star Trek-like glass capsule door that connects the cabinet office with the rear of No 10.
"You walk into the pod," recalls Wood. "It shuts behind you and then hopefully opens in front of you. There was a line of women on the other side who were the PAs, the Garden Room girls and assistants. And we were kind of matched one a piece, a bit like Strictly.
"And the thing I remember is that they all looked very red-eyed. And I only realised three years later when I left, they were crying because they'd just said goodbye to the Blair team. Within half an hour they were hoovering the floor and then lining up waiting for their new team."
Once through, the political team will rush through the corridors of No 10 to be there to greet the new PM as he walks through the door.
Some teams are better prepared than others. Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, held talks with the civil service and even trained frontbenchers in how to be a minister. "I remember Tony not wanting to know anything about that," Hunter recalls. "Superstitious is the word."
Keen to make a first impression in 2016, Perrior made a speech to civil service press officers about the importance of loyalty. "Don't screw me over and I've got your back."
For aides and advisers, the first days will also mean detailed security checks, especially for those covering foreign affairs, defence and national security.
Wood says, "My understanding is that the inquiries have evolved from questions about sexual and other matters to questions about money. I think they care much more now about financial exposure than private life exposure."
The incoming team will also be warned against using their personal email addresses for government business, and to be wary when travelling abroad, to assume that foreign governments are listening in.
Sue Nye gave Brown's team some extra advice: always carry your paperwork in a folder (to avoid official documents being snapped by photographers waiting in Downing Street). And never run.
"I was with the prime minister quite a lot, travelling around the world," says Wood. "If you're caught on camera running, it looks like something's gone wrong."
It is a strange quirk of British politics that the entire country is run from three terraced houses knocked together to form the office, state rooms and home of the prime minister.
O'Donnell calls it a "Tardis". Wood says it is like a "slightly run-down Georgian country hotel". Bertin remembers "being so overwhelmed really by No 10, the actual presence, actually being in that building, the smell of it. It just was like a sensory overload."
If changing jobs is hard enough, becoming prime minister also comes with one of life's most stressful experiences: moving house. The flat over No 11 Downing Street is slightly bigger and has in recent years been taken by the prime minister. At the end of a long day they can head to one of the small lifts that takes them to the top floor. Although in time prime ministers often make a habit of taking the stairs, the only form of exercise they get during an office-bound day running the country.
New PMs routinely try to suggest they might like to stay in their own home, before security becomes too much. Security arrangements for children and wider family will also have to be agreed. O'Donnell jokes, "We all know from Bodyguard what that can lead to."
For new prime ministers not used to the increased security, this can come as a shock. On his first day in office, Major went to walk from No 10 to the House of Commons for lunch, but was stopped by police who made it clear this would be impossible for as long as he was PM.
For PMs with young children, working below the flat could be a blessing, allowing them to slope off for an hour. The Cameron children would often be seen playing in their pyjamas as dignitaries visited.
Brown, by contrast, struggled to relax. Wood says, "He didn't enjoy living above the shop." Home remained in Scotland, while the Downing Street flat "felt a little bit like a place you were staying in for a long weekend with a few Sainsbury's bags full of milk".
Discussions will also have to be had about the position of the new PM's wife or girlfriend, whether they plan to play a visible role, and whether their own job or interests present a potential political conflict that could derail a premiership in its infancy.
There will be questions of changing artworks, even redecorating, but they can come later.
The new PM has not just one new home, but two. There is also the grace-and-favour country retreat at Chequers, where they are likely to head to for their first weekend.
May used to enjoy using the pool. Thatcher was so concerned with the electricity bills she had the pool's heating switched off. Blair added a tennis court and invited celebrity friends to stay. Cameron held an "Ibiza-style rave" for his wife's birthday.
When Major became prime minister he inherited a Chequers reception from Thatcher, but had no guests. So he asked O'Donnell, the PM's press secretary at the time, who to invite. He replied instantly, "Well, Bobby Charlton ..."
"We just reeled out these people that we'd all love to meet," says O'Donnell. "We had Jenny Agutter and a whole bunch of cricketers."
Before unwinding in the Buckinghamshire countryside, there is the small matter of putting together a government.
If the updates on the state of the nation's security are sensitive, the details of the reshuffle require perhaps even higher levels of secrecy. A small office just off the cabinet room is used for reshuffles, which means the door can be locked so ministerial posts are not spotted by prying eyes. "You need to make sure that you can't have someone going in moving the names around," says O'Donnell.
In comes a whiteboard to write people's names on with magnets. In 2010, as the coalition government was being put together, disaster struck. "For some reason the magnetic thing stopped and all the names dropped off," Bertin recalls. "I'm sure some people got different jobs as a result."
The number of ministerial jobs is limited by law to 90 MPs, and a total of 109 paid posts including 22 paid cabinet positions. Downing Street staff are tasked with finding out where key people are in preparation for them to be called in for a job – without letting on why.
Both May and Major were propelled into No 10 with such haste they had given little thought to their top team. Brown, by contrast, had been planning it for months, perhaps years, right down to every junior minister and aide. "As with all these things, it goes well until it doesn't, and then like dominoes you've got to rebuild the whole thing," recalls Wood.
Margaret Beckett was let go as foreign secretary, making way for David Miliband. "It went down like a ton of shit," says one of Wood's former colleagues. "She has never forgiven Gordon."
In addition to the rather quaint idea of choosing the right person for each job, other considerations are also taken into account: in the New Labour years it meant balancing Blairites and Brownites; the coalition had to have the right number of Tories and Lib Dems; since 2016, balancing Remainers and Leavers has been seen as critical.
It is likely that only the very top jobs – chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary – will be announced on Wednesday night. The rest of the cabinet will be rolled out on Thursday, with more junior jobs to follow.
Where the coalition had got into the habit of announcing reshuffles on Twitter, Team May thought this too Cameroon and opted for formal press releases with the Downing Street crest on.
Would-be ministers are brought into Downing Street through the front door or via the cabinet office and left in a small waiting room just off the main entrance to No 10.
"You know what I've got, don't you?" a nervous Boris Johnson asked Perrior on the evening of July 13, 2016. "Yes," she replied. "But it's not for me to tell you. It's for the prime minister. So you just have to wait a little bit longer." He was then summoned to the cabinet room to be offered the job of foreign secretary, before returning to a makeshift photographer's studio in a side office where portraits would be taken to mark the occasion.
A slick operation. But not perfect. At one point George Osborne, still resident in No 11, walked past just as someone was shouting, "Can you just repeat that? Philip Hammond is the new chancellor?" Osborne winked and carried on. Perrior explains, "George Osborne got fired via someone shouting in a corridor a little bit loudly."
For new arrivals into Downing Street, "Switch" is about to change their lives. The Downing Street switchboard is staffed around the clock by a team of crack operatives able to get anyone on the phone anywhere at a moment's notice.
Technology has obviously changed its role. Major and Blair didn't have a mobile phone. Brown was less of a stickler for process, and would text and email at all hours. These days a prime minister could bypass Switch by whatsapping their ministers, advisers or other world leaders. They could also bypass their press teams by firing off tweets, creating the havoc that Donald Trump seems to thrive on in the White House.
"If Donald Trump were prime minister," says O'Donnell, "I would have kittens, because that's just not the way our system works."
The first job for Switch will be to co-ordinate the congratulatory phone calls. Traditionally, the president of the United States is the first wellwisher to get through.
George W Bush was the first to call Brown. Three years later the White House was on the line again. "I'm speaking to you now from No 10 for the first time," Cameron told Obama, with a wink to his team.
Expect President Trump to be first on the line this week, too. Or perhaps he will just tweet. Might an early call from Germany's Angela Merkel or Ireland's Leo Varadkar help to oil the wheels of a new Brexit deal? Also listening in to those calls will be the chief of staff, special advisers, foreign policy experts and press aides charged with briefing out (some of) what is said.
There will also be hundreds, if not thousands, of calls from friends and family. O'Donnell says, "These may be the extended family that the prime minister's forgotten all about. They may feel that now their third cousin twice removed has become prime minister, they really need to congratulate them."
For some, phoning is not enough. Gifts, many terribly expensive, are dispatched. Anything worth more than £140 ($260) is seized by the cabinet office, and if the PM wants to keep it they have to pay for it. In July 2017 May was sent shoes, clothes and make-up. She chose to keep only hosiery from a firm called Luxury Legs.
And then the flowers. Thatcher joked in her memoirs that so many bouquets were sent to No 10 during her final days that "you could hardly move down the corridors for a floral display that rivalled the Chelsea Flower Show". And they all had to go before the new PM arrived, with even more blooms.
Perrior says, "The place looks like someone's died. I feel for anybody who has hayfever."
Blair found Downing Street so cramped he considered moving the office of the prime minister to the QEII conference centre. Cameron toyed with moving upstairs to one of the grand state rooms looking out over Horse Guards Parade, where Thatcher had worked, before discovering there were no phone or IT connections. Instead, he chose the room used by Blair, then known as the "den".
Bertin was not impressed. "It was a bit of a mess, if I'm honest. It was tiny. There were sort of, you know, stains on the carpet."
When May, who inherited Cameron's office, visited Perrior in her oak-panelled corner room overlooking the garden, she remarked how nice it was. "I said something along the lines of, 'Keep your hands off … You are not taking this office.' "
In most workplaces having your own office would be a sign of status, but in Downing Street it can leave you cut off from the action.
Chiefs of staff position themselves right outside the prime minister's office, deciding who gets in and who doesn't. Everyone insists that the prime minister wants them to be in the room, closest to them, at all times.
"You felt sometimes that you should hover," says Wood. "Hopefully you caught someone's eye and then they'd say, 'Oh, you'd better come in.' Proximity was everything."
Under May there was to be no hovering. A sofa outside the PM's office, used by hoverers, was removed. "It was made clear that you do not linger in this office," Perrior recalls. "You are only to come when you are invited."
In the early days of the May regime a small side office was commandeered by her chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy.
It became known as the "bollocking room". "You knew that if you were asked to go in there … it was not going to be necessarily pleasant," says Perrior.
Cameron had formality forced upon him: the coalition meant Nick Clegg (and his Lib Dem team) were squatters in No 10. Decisions had to be taken formally by both parties, not by a select clique. Conservative spin doctors and policy advisers were told to share offices with their Lib Dem opposite numbers. "I can remember being pissed off about that," says Bertin, although she now admits it was the right way to ensure the coalition worked.
On Wednesday night civil servants will be encouraging the new PM to go to bed early, knowing what onslaught awaits the next day.
In 2007, at around 9pm, Brown went back to his flat – handily for the former chancellor, just upstairs – where his wife, Sarah, cooked dinner and close friends celebrated with champagne.
The new PM will likely head to their own home, because the Mays will not have moved out. But that does not mean time to switch off. They will have their red boxes of papers to work through, covering everything from a draft speech to a natural disaster or a parliamentary crisis. There is also the black box, known as "Old Stripey" due to its red stripe, that contains the most sensitive material, which even as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson might not have seen.
Before heading off, it is probably wise to gather people for a pep talk, bringing together political advisers and civil servants to begin to cement them into a team. In 2007, Brown told the assembled workers in the Pillared Room, "It's not every day you meet the Queen at 1.30pm, become the prime minister at 2.45pm, speak to the president of the United States at 4pm and get told by Sarah to put the kids to bed at 7pm." Cameron made a speech joking about how he and Nick Clegg would get on better than Blair and Brown, which went down badly with those who'd spent years working for the Labour PMs.
May's thank-you party for staff came many weeks later, highlighting early on the lack of people skills that in the end would bring her low.
The next day
All prime ministers have a habit of starting early, and for May's replacement time will be of the essence. On Thursday teams will be assembled early, at around 6am. The reshuffle will have to be completed, and the new prime minister is expected to make an appearance in the Commons before parliament rises for its six-week summer recess.
The diary will already be filling up. And it will be nonstop and baffling and relentless. Wood explains, "At 7am, you're meeting with the Scottish Bagpipe Association, who've got a problem with tax treatment, and then at 8.15am you've got a phone call with the Armenian president 'cause there's a problem on the border, and then at 9am you've got a policy meeting about long-term health policy. And you've got to fight against this tendency always to put aside the long-term stuff because there's always enough short-term stuff to really consume you."
Like all good things, premierships come to an end. A new arrival in Downing Street means there has been a departure. Out with the old and in with the new.
In 2016, moments before Cameron went out to make his final speech, Bertin caught him just behind the No 10 door to tell him how proud she was of what he'd achieved. "Please don't," he said. "You're going to make me cry." When he came back in there were more tears, though he held it together. Just.
Leaving the building, and the power and influence it gives, is a wrench. Wood says, "It's like handing over your most precious possession to someone else and resenting the fact that it's not yours, but you want them to treat it well."
Wood left a note to Bertin in 2010. When Bertin came to leave six years later she wrote a note to her children on No 10 paper, saying, "This is what Mummy did."
And so it ends as it began, with letters. Before leaving Brown wrote three letters: one to Cameron (left under a bottle of whisky), one to Nelson Mandela and one to Aung San Suu Kyi. Most prime ministers leave their successor a note, knowing they are one of just a handful of people alive who know what the job is really like.
Brown had a well-worn joke about this. He used to say that when you finish in your job and your successor is taking over, you hand them three envelopes. When there's a crisis (and there always is), they open the first letter and it says, "Blame your predecessor." The next crisis, the second letter says, "Blame the statistics." And finally the third envelope says, "Prepare three envelopes."
Written by: Matt Chorley
© The Times of London