A brief history of turbulent prime ministerial Christmases

All too often wars, natural disasters and dramatic resignations have conspired to spoil the day

December 21, 2020
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

Downing Street—or the “plague pit” as some insiders are calling it—cannot expect much festive cheer this year. The centuries-old building does not lend itself to social distancing—witness how many of those who work there, including the PM, have fallen victim to the pandemic. Parties like those for the No 10 staff and receptions for charities, for political supporters and for the great and the good will not take place as they usually do.

Even in normal times there is a hierarchy about these things. “Receptions are not parties,” a Downing St spokeswoman insists. It sounds like a rum distinction. You don’t expect dancing at a “reception” of course, unlike staff parties in the state rooms where Margaret Thatcher would trip the light fantastic. “It was a nightmare,” says Lord Butler. “Particularly because she was a very good dancer.” And no doubt a very strong-willed one. Perhaps the current spokeswoman was trying to distinguish between bashes where the taxpayer picks up the bill—including the one for parliamentary journalists—and those that are paid for privately. The staff party is self-funded and prime ministers, who usually spend Christmas itself at Chequers, have to fork out personally to entertain family and friends.

It is not just the cancellation of seasonal celebrations that will make this a grim Yuletide. Boris Johnson will find a host of urgent problems crowding in on him—from Brexit and the pandemic to fears about the economy, unemployment and the break-up of the UK itself. Yet 2020 won’t be the first time that events have cast a severe dampener on Christmas celebrations at the heart of government. All too often wars, invasions, natural disasters, international plots and dramatic resignations have helped to spoil prime ministerial Christmases.

When Thatcher fell from power in November 1990, her official engagements were quickly transferred to the diary of her successor, John Major. But all her personal invitations for Christmas at Chequers to her friends and political supporters had to be withdrawn. It added to her deep gloom.

In 1941, Thatcher’s political idol, Winston Churchill, must have caused gloom among Number 10 officials. According to historian Andrew Roberts, when the great man’s principal private secretary asked for the Downing Street staff to have a week off for Christmas, Churchill replied from Chequers that the request surprised him, saying: “No holidays can be given at Christmas but every endeavour should be made to allow staff to attend divine service, either in the morning or the evening.” He later wished them all “a busy Christmas and a frantic New Year.”

Admittedly there was a war on but it still seems a little harsh. Yet Churchill practised what he preached. In 1944, following a communist revolt and street fighting in Athens, he flew to Greece to negotiate a settlement, taking off at 1am on Christmas morning. He was accompanied by Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary.

When Eden himself became PM he had one of the most miserable Christmases of any No 10 incumbent: the 1956 Suez crisis was mired in deceit and failure. Britain, France and Israel had secretly conspired to take back the Suez Canal from Egypt’s Colonel Nasser. Not only was the plot a failure but only four days before Christmas Eden lied to the Commons, falsely claiming “there was no foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt.” According to Anthony Seldon’s book The Cabinet Office, that same day Norman Brook, the cabinet secretary, was seen by future PM Edward Heath coming from the cabinet room in No 10, where he had been seeing Eden. According to Heath, Brook, looking “like an old Samurai who had been asked to fall on his sword,” said: “He’s told me to destroy all the relevant documents. I must go and get it done.”

Despite the frequency of crises at Christmas, there are always glimpses of ministers and officials entering into the festive spirit. Thatcher, who enjoyed a whisky, attended one No 10 party in an office next to the cabinet room. Suddenly the phone rang on the desk of Charles Powell, her influential foreign affairs adviser. In the kind of role reversal that can happen at office parties, Thatcher herself picked it up and said unhesitatingly: “No, he’s not here but I can take a message.”

Some events include civil servants performing skits on life in government. The late Romola Christopherson, one of Whitehall’s most respected press officers and a brilliant sketch writer, would extol the virtues of her patent “policy-making machine”: all policies guaranteed “fully reversible and available in blue, red or yellow.” Her performance as the No 10 charlady, scrubbing the floor under the cabinet table and identifying ministers from the waist down, even raised a laugh from Thatcher, albeit one with a brittle edge.

Tom McNally, who became leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords, had earlier been political adviser to Labour PM Jim Callaghan. The highlight of his three Christmases at No 10 had been the party for sick and disabled children. “One year Vera Lynn came,” he recalls. “As Jim Callaghan took her round meeting the children, I stood talking to her husband and agent, Harry Lewis. ‘What do you do?’ he asked. ‘Oh, I just make sure the PM is in the right place at the right time, saying the right things to the right people,’ I replied. ‘That’s what I do for Vera,’ he said.”

There are always duty officers monitoring events round the world. If it is important enough, officials will keep the PM informed by phone but will cope largely on their own without having to disrupt his Christmas dinner. One example was in 2004 when Tony Blair was preparing to leave Chequers for a break in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. Then on Boxing Day he took a call about the tsunami in Asia. He “hesitated about leaving” but he’d been working flat out and decided to go, arguing that the fallout from the tsunami would be handled on the phone in any event. “However, he reflected later, “I knew I would be criticised for going. And I was.”

Prime ministers are never really off duty. Blair spent the Christmas of 2002 contemplating military action in Iraq. “I remember that Christmas at Chequers,” he recalled in his autobiography. “As ever there was the massive tree in the Great Hall, the decorations, the festivity done with a ritual and solemnity that time had hallowed... Leaving everyone to take pre-Christmas drinks, I went up to the long gallery with its ancient books some dating from the time of Caxton. I sat and thought. What did I truly believe? That Saddam was about to attack Britain or the US? No. Did I think that if we drew back now, we would have to deal with him later? That I thought was clear: yes.” Two months later, when a million people marched in London against the war, Blair was reminded of “my isolation and the responsibility of the decision.” We went to war nonetheless. 

Domestic matters may be of lesser import but they can cast a pall over Christmas. In 1998 Peter Mandelson, secretary of state for industry and one of the original drivers of Blair’s New Labour project, was exposed for having taken a sizeable loan from Geoffrey Robinson, the paymaster general, to buy a house. The scandal was dominating the newspapers and just before Christmas Blair reluctantly told Mandelson he must resign. One of the those he turned to for advice was his top civil servant, cabinet secretary Richard Wilson.

“I was meant to be driving my family to Suffolk and the story was exploding in the press,” recalls Wilson. “I have a vivid memory of having a phone conversation with the PM the evening after Peter had resigned. He was at Chequers and because my mobile didn’t work in deepest Suffolk, I was in a remote phone box located among pitch black, dripping pines. It was a long, sad conversation, only brought to an end when a lady in a Christmas hat knocked on the door and said: ‘Are you going to be long, luv?’” “Christmas in government,” he reflects, “is full of incongruity.”

Blair continued to worry about the Mandelson decision. “I sat in Chequers that Christmas Day and contemplated,” he wrote.” At the time I was certain Peter had to resign. Now I’m not so sure.” What he actually did was to go off to the Seychelles on Boxing Day, leaving his spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, to pick up the pieces. “Poor old Alastair. He would call me up saying the press was terrible... He felt he was bearing the brunt when I was swanning off but he never understood me and my holidays.”

One of the few prime ministers who didn’t head for Chequers at Christmas was Gordon Brown, who always preferred going to his house in Scotland. Yet there was no escape from tough choices—or from critics. In December 2009 the financial crisis was still hurting—despite Brown assuring MPs, in a Freudian slip of the tongue, that he was “saving the world.” He spent the rest of the month planning a second big bailout for the banks—ultimately announced on 19th January. But by now, there was concern about Labour’s election prospects with mounting discontent in the party, including in the cabinet itself. On Boxing Day he woke up to a Daily Mail headline saying: “New Plot to oust Gordon Brown.” As Brown himself said, with massive understatement: “It was a rocky time.”

Christmas 2020 could be even rockier for Johnson. His strengths include his way with words, his optimism and an ability to play down setbacks. He is going to need all of these skills in the coming weeks, but he must use them with care. Even if he secures an EU trade deal as a Christmas present for the nation, he should remember that one of the ghosts of Christmas past hovering over Downing Street is that of Jim Callaghan. Returning in the first days of January 1979 from a summit in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to a Britain caught in the winter of discontent, Callaghan tried to minimise media claims about chaos. The result was the all too memorable headline: “Crisis? What crisis?” Kenneth Stowe, his principal private secretary, never forgave himself for not going to Heathrow to warn his political master of the national mood. The electorate never forgave Callaghan. With millions of voters unexpectedly placed in lockdown, with the uncertainty of Brexit causing long queues of lorries backing up at Dover and the economy facing a slump, Boris Johnson may be in for a second Winter of Discontent and the worst prime ministerial Christmas ever.