Peter Cardwell

Farewell to the Palmerston I knew

The Foreign Office cat has earned his retirement

Farewell to the Palmerston I knew
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As a number of top civil servants take shelter from the 'hard rain' Dominic Cummings has forecast for Whitehall, it's unsurprising one feline has also taken the opportunity to announce his retirement.

It's fair to say my friends and former colleagues who work at the Foreign Office are much sadder to see the back of Palmerston the cat than the permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, who is also leaving his post, though in fairness Sir Simon probably made himself available for fewer scratches behind the ears.

The announcement has been subject to speculation for some time, with Palmerston isolating for months at a temporary home in Hampshire, which is now to become permanent. Ever the media-savvy moggy, Palmerston chose the eve of International Cat Day to announce his departure.

As a journalist and then government special adviser for much of the last decade – as well as a total cat nut – I've got to know the felines of Whitehall, including Palmerston, well. Whether waiting in the Downing Street press pen or hanging around waiting for my boss to leave Cabinet, there is a fair amount of time available for both political journalists and SpAds to do some cat-spotting in between being glued to our phones.

Palmerston was always tremendously friendly to the press pack and waiting SpAds, happily posing for photos and accepting strokes from his adoring public.

He was less friendly to his greatest rival, however, with whom he frequently clashed – No. 10's Larry. The two would scrab and paw at one another frequently, even as the cameras rolled.

But just as his master Boris saw off his rivals a year ago to gain the top prize, so Larry has cancelled his sparring partner, Palmerston, to become top cat. Make no mistake, Palmerston's retirement may mean more trees for him to climb and a happier, more sedate home life – especially in the evenings and weekends – but it represents a big power grab for Larry.

Now he has dispatched Palmerston, Larry faces little competition from the demure Evie and her son Ossie, the Cabinet Office cats, who remain in place. Even Gladstone, the cat down the road at the Treasury, has been exiled for some months for health reasons.

Speaking of Gladstone, I was delighted to learn when working at the Northern Ireland Office that the jet-black feline’s home was just one floor up from my office. I soon became an occasional visitor to Gladstone's lair, sometimes donating a few quid for his food and medical bills. There was even a mug you could purchase from Treasury officials on which Gladstone’s visage was emblazoned. On learning it cost the eye-watering sum of £7.50, one Northern Ireland Office official rolled his eyes and remarked 'classic Treasury'.

And as Gladstone guarded the pennies at the Treasury, next door at the FCO Palmerston was working wonders for international relations. It was clear from the outset that Palmerston had landed on his feet at the Foreign Office. We'll gloss over his patchy record of actually catching mice – though no Whitehall cat is as bad as Larry at this – and focus more on the fact that Palmerston was a fantastic diplomat. Or diplomog, as he called himself to his 105,000 Twitter followers.

He spawned, er, copycats around the world, with few embassies complete without a diplomog or diplodog, with both Palmerston and his contemporaries probably doing much more for Britain's image abroad than most civil servants, and at much less expense too.

Ask yourself this: who achieved more at the Foreign Office: Palmerston or, say, Phillip Hammond? I know who my Dreamies are on.

In his four short years at the Foreign Office, Palmerston also managed to raise thousands for his alma mater, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, reminding people that it's better, safer and more humane to adopt a cat rather than to buy one. The fact that all the Whitehall moggies are rescue cats sends a powerful message.

But all political careers end in failure or, perhaps, a cat bed in Hampshire. Just as thousands of FCO civil servants have abandoned the department's King Charles Street headquarters due to Covid, so too has Palmerston, who has been enjoying the quieter environs of the countryside in the anonymity of which most Whitehall cats can only dream. Less Zoom, more zooming about, lunging at birds and rodents in his new owner's countryside garden.

The cat behaviour expert Celia Haddon tells me: 'There are two new things Palmerston will enjoy: sofas, and beds with a sleeping human in them. Like the original Palmerston, he will like having company at night – there can't have been much of that at the Foreign Office.'

Having boosted Britain’s image abroad on social media and provided a furry focal point – and ice-breaker – for diplomats globally, Palmerston has certainly earned his retirement. Larry won’t miss him one jot, but the rest of us around Westminster absolutely will.

Peter Cardwell was a special adviser in four government departments from 2016 to 2020