Gordon Brown entered 10 Downing Street yesterday, ful-filing an ambition that has been burning in his soul for more than a decade. But the outgoing prime minister Tony Blair has questioned whether Number 10 is in any way fit to serve as the headquarters of a modern head of state.
There are around 200 staff employed in the Downing Street complex, and most gathered to bid Tony Blair farewell yesterday. But the majority are forced to work apart in small rooms and on different floors as there are no large open-plan offices in the building.
If ever a television series was made of life in Number 10, it would need a very different set from that of the West Wing. There policy advisers stride through hi-tech offices; here it's more like trying to run a government in a stately home, with key players having to run upstairs and downstairs. Unlike the White House, which has a separate residence, the flat above Downing Street always keeps open the prospect that the "First Lady" might be caught in her nightie at the front door.
The elegant town house is tucked down a side street off Whitehall and widely judged by those who work inside it to be too cramped to house a modern government. It was built in the 17th century by Sir George Downing as a bit of speculative enterprise on a patch of land given to him by Charles II as a reward for his services. Downing, an exchequer official, was a nasty piece of work - one of his clerks, Samuel Pepys, confided to his diary that his boss was a "perfidious rogue".
Born in Ireland but brought up in New England, Downing, then a preacher, sailed to Britain to join the parliamentary cause against Charles I, and went on to become Oliver Cromwell's chief of intelligence under the title Scoutmaster General. Using his close contacts with Cromwell, under his protectorate, in 1654, Downing obtained the Crown interest in the land near St James's Park, which had been part of Henry VIII's Palace of Whitehall.
Downing was later was sent as an ambassador by Cromwell to the Hague to spy on the exiled Royal Family, who were plotting the restoration of the monarchy. But with the death of Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard to secure his succession, Downing changed sides.
He betrayed three allies, Corbet, Okey and Barkstead, who were brought back to England from Holland and executed for their part in the death of Charles I. Having renounced the principles of independence that he "sucked in" in America, Downing was rewarded at the Restoration by Charles II with a baronetcy and set about making his fortune with speculative building at Whitehall.
Downing demolished a fine Tudor house on the site and built a cul- de-sac of 15 to 20 terraced houses in its place. They were designed cheaply for a quick profit but they had poor foundations for the boggy ground, and instead of neat brick facades had mortar lines drawn on to look like bricks. No 10 was numbered five in his scheme, and overlooked at the back a much finer house that was owned by Charlotte Lee, Countess of Lichfield, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and one of his celebrated mistresses, Barbara Villiers.
In the first recorded case of Nimbyism, the countess complained to the king about the new building overlooking her home, and he wrote back with a note for the King's Surveyor, Christopher Wren, to build up the wall "as high as you please".
The first steps towards modern cabinet government were taken in White-hal in the 18th century, with the creation of the party system by the Tories and the Whigs. Sir Robert Walpole became the first Prime Minister under the title of First Lord of the Treasury, which is still on the famous brass letter box at No 10 today.
Walpole, a Whig, was a giant of a man, with an avarice and large houses in Nor-folk and Surrey to match. But when George II offered him the small town house in …