The election is still rumbling away, like a runaway train chuntering through the night or a clown car careering into a splash-pool of custard. But Christmas will soon be upon us and, by then, we will have a new Prime Minister.
It seems easy to imagine how Boris or Corbyn would spend their first Christmas as PM. Boris – I imagine a four bird spit-roast at mid-day before he settles down for his meal at 3. Corbyn – a can of lentils for Christmas lunch, then an evening spent gathered round a Christmas picket singing IRA songs. Indeed, when asked his Christmas drink of choice, Mr Corbyn replied last year, “Apple juice… On Christmas Day, I make sure it’s a particularly good one.”
But how did our previous Prime Ministers spend their Christmases?
Theresa May was spotted, just before Christmas 2018, buying last minute festive foodstuffs in Waitrose. There is something very “Waitrose” about the former Prime Minister – it doesn’t take much to imagine her overcooking the goose (she prefers goose) and trying to disguise it with gravy and red cabbage in port and orange sauce. Unlike her immediate predecessors, Theresa May’s christmases had a distinctly religious flavour – she openly attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and church again on Christmas Day morning. Her evening viewing? Strictly Come Dancing.
I heartily approve of Mrs May’s choice of Christmas tipple, though. Penderyn – a Welsh whisky, distilled in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons – cannot be beaten on a cold Winter’s night.
Traditionally, the Prime Minister spends his or her Christmases at Chequers, but, like Gordon Brown before him (who went to his family home in Scotland), David Cameron decided to go elsewhere for his first Christmas in office. His plans were interrupted, however – and his luxury holiday to a £1000-a-night resort in Phucket, Thailand was cancelled after pressure from the media in the wake of his government’s spending cuts.
Cameron’s first Christmas as Prime Minister was a social whirlwind; it was revealed he’d had dinner with James Murdoch at the home of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks on the 23rd December. The incident threw the “Chipping Norton set” – Cameron’s social circle – into the media spotlight. He also went to a party with them on Boxing Day. The Mayor’s wife was less than pleased by the negative attention the area began to receive: “Surely people are allowed to have supper at Christmas with their neighbours? Such a lot has been made of the celebrity factor. But we have a lot of well-known people in the area… because it is a beautiful place, and people are allowed to get on with things.”
In 2013, the public said they’d rather spend Christmas with David Cameron than then Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Labour’s longest serving Prime Minister loved Chequers – and loved spending Christmas there. They would fill the house with family and friends, and Cherie seemed to particularly enjoy it: “[The Christmas tree] was about 20 feet tall, it took several people just to get it in the front door… It’s hard to imagine there could be anywhere more perfect to spend Christmas,” she wrote in her memoirs.
Rituals included Midnight Mass, and giving presents to the staff and Police officers – as well as insisting everybody had a glass of champagne.
In 1997, Blair did not receive the Prime Minister’s traditional Christmas Turkey, sent from the British Turkey Federation – his spin doctor Alastair Campbell had vetoed it, fearing a photo of Blair with the dead bird in the press. For subsequent years, Blair’s wife would take delivery of the turkey – and pose for the photos.
Margaret Thatcher once said she “didn’t do Christmas”. Certainly, those that attended her Christmas Parties at Chequers have less than fond memories of them. “It was trying and traditional and terribly polite. And sort of horrible, really,” wrote Lord Bell in his memoirs. But there were highlights: “At some stage the boys (including Denis with his endless fags) would sneak off to the Churchill loo, which had a huge saddle-style seat and a cigar ashtray and we’d talk through the door at each other and giggle and smoke, as if Margaret was the headmistress and we were the naughty children.”
If this sounds a bit staid, it’s because – it seems fair to conclude – it was. For Mrs T, Christmas was an inconvenience, that slowed down her work transforming the country. She would pause in the evening though, to settle down for Morecambe and Wise (but never appeared on the show herself, as Harold Wilson did in 1978). Perhaps the biggest myth is that Jimmy Saville regularly attended. He never did.
In 1893, the then Prime Minister William Gladstone decided to cancel Christmas – giving MPs only 4 days off. This prompted a letter from George, the young son of the Earl of Pembroke: “Dear Mr Gladstone, I am sorry we cannot go to Ireland for Christmas, as you have only given Father four days holiday. And I hope you will give him some more after this letter. Yours sincerely, George Sidney Herbert.”